Beauty and the Beast – 2024 Strand Panto

Image above: Beauty & the Beast whole company

A Peruvian TV actress, an England cricketer and a King’s Counsel walked into a playground …

Unbelievably, the Strand on the Green School panto is in its 43rd year. Since 1981 the primary school parents have put on a show, written, produced, directed and performed by them, taking great delight in making total fools of themselves on stage in front of their kids, and handing on the tradition to the next generation of parents when their kids moved on to secondary school.

What is so amazing is that these pantos are fantastic. When we moved to Chiswick in 1993 and my daughter joined the nursery at Strand we went to see Mother Goose and were blown away by the professionalism of it: the costumes, the scenery, the lighting, the music, and the confidence of the performers, despite the fact that a different group comes together each year just for a few weeks of evening rehearsals.

Sure, some of the actors were as wooden as the scenery, only a few of the chorus knew the words to the songs on the opening night and it took until the last day for them all to be dancing in the same direction, but what quickly became apparent was that in amongst the shy, first time on a stage parents, there are always a sprinkling of professionals.

This being London, there are always a few actors, musicians, scenery painters and costume makers knocking about, whose expertise lifts the show, and this year’s production, Beauty and the Beast was no exception. The cast boasted a Peruvian actress, Sandra Vergara, very well known on Peruvian TV, and a former England cricketer, Robert Tindall.

Image above: Belle with Raclette (Sandra Vergara), Silhouette (Simone Radclyffe) and Serviette (Polly Atkinson)

Sophie Allen, who played the Beast, is carrying on the family tradition. Her father Murray Head had a hit with One Night in Bangkok, while her uncle Anthony Head, a musical theatre performer, is best known for his role as Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The script was written by film director Scott Michell (The Innocent Sleep, 1996, with Rupert Graves, Michael Gambon and John Hannah) and it really benefitted from a professional hand. The dialogue rattled along firing jokes in almost every line.

I heard some Eastern European parents saying as they were leaving how funny it had been. It was their first experience of an English pantomime and they hadn’t know what to expect.

“It was so funny” said one. “I really didn’t expect it to be so funny.”

Images above: Bad fairy Mme Gateau (Hannah Bellamy) – photograph Agniesszka Grodzka-Hinkin; Good fairy Fairy Frankie (Christina Lazarevic)

Dad jokes

“I start with the jokes” said Scott, who has been writing the Strand panto for the past five years. “I always write them from scratch and start by compiling a long list of jokes.”

My favourite was the one delivered by the wolves, who having failed to catch Belle’s father in the woods and eat him, decided they would order from Deliveroo-oooooooo.

Being French, the cast all had ridiculous French names (M. Éclair, Mme Gateau and the villagers Raclette, Silhouette and Serviette).

The Dame, Mme Macaroon, was the beneficiary of a red velvet number previously worn by Anne Hegerty, aka the Governess in The Chase, when she played the Queen of Hearts in an Alice in Wonderland themed show, because Paula, (Derrière, the butt of many of the jokes – geddit?) works on The Chase. She was excellent, and has a lovely voice.

Images above: Mme Macaroon (Edward Henry); Derrière (Paula Bridle) with Gaviscon (Wojtek Kawecki); photographs Agniesszka Grodzka-Hinkin

KC by day, pantomime dame by night

The Dame himself, Edward Henry, is a KC. He’s spent the past few weeks prancing about in drag at the evening rehearsals while representing 12 of the sub-postmasters and mistresses in the Post Office scandal at the Public Inquiry by day.

I put it to him that being a barrister and being a pantomime dame aren’t so very different really. Both perform to the gallery in silly wigs after all. He had toyed with the idea of being an actor at university, he told me, but being at Cambridge with the likes of Simon Russell Beale and Tilda Swinton persuaded him he was better off sticking to law.

The Inquiry will be continuing until September at least. Among his clients is Lee Castleton, played by Will Mellor in the TV drama Mr Bates vs the Post Office.

“I feel very cut up about the way he was scapegoated” he told me. “This is undoubtedly the biggest and most protracted miscarriage of justice in modern British legal history.

“There has been an abject failure of the courts to realise they were being faced with a confidence trick.”

Images above: The dame organising a little bit of audience participation; Belle in her evening gown for dinner with the Beast

Being in the pantomime has been a valuable way for him to let off steam in the evenings, and many parents feel the same, that taking part is a great way to get through the grey days of January and February and relieve some of the stress of life.

Jennifer Sipe, an American, was also experiencing English panto for the first time. She played the back end of the pantomime horse, so she can’t have got to see much of it. Justine Michell reprised her role as Doris, back by popular request, as the doddery waitress from last year’s Aladdin (recognisably based on Julie Walters’ character Mrs Overall from Victoria Wood’s Acorn Antiques).

Images above: Paula Bridle as Derrière; Matthew Fuchter as the front end of the pantomime horse

The good and the bad fairy, Christina Lazarevic and Hannah Bellamy narrated the tale, whipping up the kids to a frenzy of excitement.

The village heart throb, ‘Gaviscon’ (cue lots of jokes about heartburn) Wojtek Kawecki, was suitably good-looking and vain. Belle, Giorgina Jolly, and the Beast, Sophie Allen, were suitably soppy and heroic, and the whole thing was helped along mightily by the band – Andrea, Nick Fermi and Steve Jessop.

The cast would like to give a particular shout out to Steve and Claire, the school’s site managers, who went “above and beyond” to enable them to rehearse in those dreary winter evenings.

Images above: The happy ending as Belle and the Beast break the spell of the wicked fairy

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