ARE we happy that The Theatre Chipping Norton is celebrating its 40th year of pantomime?
‘Oh yes we are!’ seems to be the unanimous cry of affirmation from scores of happy panto-goers as they tumble out onto the town’s dark winter streets, still buzzing with the glitz and glamour of this year’s sparkling Cinderella production.
The 2012 show is one of the most successful ever and will have been watched by an astonishing 16,000 people by the time it closes on January 6.
Set in the romantic Renaissance city of Venice, the show bursts with colourful characters, costumes and an ingenious set which manages to incorporate palaces, canals and gondolas, and enough belly laughs, sing-alongs and camped up banter to warm even the coldest of winter nights.
But behind The Theatre’s curtain of modern professional performances lies a long history of a community pulling together to get the show on the road.
In fact, The Theatre started life in 1888 when the Salvation Army built its new headquarters on the site to combat the Victorian drinking dens and brothels that huddled along Spring Street. The building was later used as a furniture warehouse and became derelict until its potential was spotted in 1968 by Royal Shakespeare Company actors Tamara and John Malcolm.
The first ever Chipping Norton pantomime, Beauty and the Beast, was put on in the Town Hall in 1973 to raise funds to convert the dilapidated building into a proper auditorium.
The first panto ran for four shows and was seen by just 667 people, but even in those days it incorporated the essential ingredients which have since become a key ingredient of the Chippy Christmas tradition – a sing-along song, sweets thrown into the crowd, and a cracking story and script.
It also established the community credentials of the panto for The Theatre, which to this day is a charity and relies heavily on donations and community fundraising.
A year later more funds were raised at the town hall with a run of Old King Cole and then in 1975 the curtain raised at the newly-renovated theatre for its very first panto, Aladdin. Since those early years, the panto has gone from strength to strength with repeat performances of classic shows such as Dick Whittington and Little Red Riding Hood and no less than four renditions of Cindarella – each with its own unique promotional poster.
A major Arts Council grant in 1996 enabled massive improvements to the building and a problem with a leaky roof which threatened to wash out 2007’s Rapunzal was rectified when local architects suggested an ingenious plan to literally raise the roof – creating a brand new studio space.
So what is the magic formula behind the panto’s long-running success? Sarah Travis who has composed the music for many Chippy pantos captured some of the magic saying: “The greatest reward is to sit amongst a school matinee and hear the deafening roar of children booing, cheering and screaming, it’s priceless!”
Current writer Ben Crocker added: “All good pantomime embodies a sense of tradition, but hopefully a tradition that is living, developing and continually evolving. So, at Chipping Norton we don’t re-invent the wheel each year, but we do ask the question, ‘Are we happy with this wheel?’ Of course, the answer is essentially ‘Oh, yes we are!’, but the rigour of the process does ensure we create something particular for this very special little theatre.”
In these tough economic times, staff at The Theatre are working harder than ever to coax the pantomime genie out of the bottle.
But head of audience development, Stephen Birch, says The Theatre is offering the community more than ever before, with two in-house productions planned yearly in addition to the pantomime, including an upcoming production of The Glass Menagerie – due to show in March – and an extensive community and education programme.
“There are activities for all ages from babies to pensioners and there’s no better way to support The Theatre than to come and use it and come and see the shows,” he explained. “Life is hard for some at the moment but we like to think they can lose themselves and leave the real world behind for a while in our magical little theatre.”
To find out about shows, events and activities at The Theatre or to book tickets, visit The Theatre’s website at www.chippingnortontheatre.co.uk.