Christmas backstage gets scary

I was eagerly awaiting the legendary Cambridge University Footlights Christmas Pantomime, The Pied Piper. It was the end of my first term and I’d managed to get a free ticket to the show of the year, the pinnacle of Amateur theatre, ten months in the making. And then I got an email, subject: ‘Help! Panto needs you!’ A call for anyone who had ever set foot backstage to rush to the theatre en masse to paint set, rig lights and join the stage management team. And so I entered the dark underbelly of Pantomime.

The first step was painting a cage. Outside. In minus 4 temperatures. At 2am. And then I found out what to do with the cages. This was the first time I had ever encountered the word ‘periactoid’. “Could you please use that in a sentence?” –“So, in the interval we have to change the faces and spin the periactoids onto the white spikes”  At this point I was still imagining a flying dinosaur, or maybe some form of crustacean. ‘Periactoid’ is, in fact, just a fancy word for ‘giant metal Toblerone on wheels’. A triangular frame made out of scaffolding which allowed us to stealthily change between Hamlin town, the pub, the enchanted woods and the Piper’s airs with no trouble at all. The only problem was that we needed 4 different set changes, and as we all know a Toblerone has 3 rectangular faces. Cue manic changing of extremely heavy pieces of Hamlin town during the interval. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the entire stage management team was made up of weedy girls, who weren’t the most qualified candidates to lug giant slabs of wood around. This was when I made a strategic decision to become a proper techie, to sit in the dinosaur’s belly with a purple podger of power (a glorified wrench) to deal with the business of making sure the shop face actually stayed 6ft in the air rather than crushing the rats of Hamlin town, and therefore putting a premature end to Hamlin’s woes.

But my responsibilities were not limited to constructing cages and mounting shop fronts. I got to play with props too! This included making a fresh pint of pork every night (red paint and lots of tissue paper), preparing custard pies (shaving foam on a plastic plate) nad moving around piles of birdseed and fake explosives. But by far the weirdest task was carrying (fireman’s lift, if you must know) a human-size model of a dead cat in pyjamas (a replica of the imaginatively named character Katzinjama) up an extremely narrow ladder so that he could be catapulted down onto the stage. This resulted in two bruised knees and a creepy puppet eyeing up at anyone who dared climb the ladder into the counterweights gallery.

But the techies aren’t all a bunch of underappreciated shrinking violets. We had group sing-alongs to the timeless classic ‘I’m gonna nick your kids’, tap dancing in the fire passage, and even a final night camio from Beast. ‘You know Beast when you meet Beast’: he is the cross between the incredible Hulk and a grizzly bear. So we put him in the cage to be another part of the Piper’s sinister lair. I also learned the hard way never to stick around when there is fake snow or smoke. I am still trying to work out how shredded paper found its way in between two layers of tights. Furthermore, fake smoke feels and tastes like ectoplasm, not that I’m familiar with ghost residue, but I can now imagine the sensation.

The best part of Panto, however, was destroying Hamlin town at the end of the run. There is a certain masochistic pleasure in destroying the candy coloured world you spent so long making. The Hamlinocide started with stealth carpentry: the art of deconstructing a giant wheely pie in the dark, without making any noise. Things got a bit more violent after the show: sledgehammers, power drills and hard hats were obligatory. We even got the lead actress up a 20ft ladder armed with a screwdriver. Meanwhile, I fought my own battle with childproof bolts: think medicine bottles and multiply it by one hundred, then add a couple of wrenches and Beast jumping on the piece of set you are trying to dismantle. Then add falling ropes and swinging poles into the equation. You can see why hard hats come in useful.

Finally, when the stage was repainted black, the lights were closed up, there was no rock hanging from a bar in the roof and the cat had gone in the skip, it was time for the after party. Time for the epic fridge cake made in the workshop under the stage. Time for the speeches and gifts. Time for the well-earned free drink. And time to murder ‘I’m gonna nick your kids’ in the bar.

Alex Hunter

Image: Alex Hunter