The secret of successful Devonshire Park panto is all in the planning

Cinderella at Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne
Cinderella at Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne

Looking forward to an annual visit to the Devonshire Park pantomime? Or have you already enjoyed this year’s Cinderella? While you enjoy the dance, music, slapstick and the dazzling fairy-tale, spare a brief thought for the people who created it.

Director Chris Jordan always remarks that creating a pantomime is a thirteen-month job. Once the current production is safely launched, the creative minds turn to 2019 and a whole new show – the concept, the style, the script, the practicalities.

But while those embryonic grand plans begin to take shape, there is a show going on now, day in day out – indeed, on many days, two or even three shows. Cinderella is just about a fortnight into its run, and when on January 13, the last of its 64 performances finally comes down, the cast will collapse on top of each other in a heap of sweat, greasepaint, exhaustion - and triumph. Pantomime is like nothing else in the acting canon. Quite apart from the performers out front, there is a whole supporting army bringing the show to stage. Costumes empress Shelley Claridge and her team have been known to work literally through the night. Paul Debreczeny and the crew will have given blood to ensure that Cinderella’s Coach flies – oops, no spoilers – and Carl Greenwood’s band will have accompanied 486 dance numbers. Actually I made that last figure up!

But believe me, they love it just as much as you good folk in the auditorium. Before Cinderella opened, I caught up with some of the cast. Sharing the Daming duties with Martyn Knight this year – for Cinderella of course has two Ugly Sisters – is Scott St Martyn, and the pair have a tale to tell, more remarkable than panto scripts.

“We go back half a century – exactly!” explains Scott. “Martyn and I first met at school, when a teacher plonked us together on the first day of term – fifty years, to the very day, before this year’s Devonshire Park rehearsals. And we have been inseparable ever since.”

Embryonic actors, even back then? “Yes, actually - we soon discovered a mutual love of theatre, and joined the same local operatic society as juniors.” And perfect scholars too? “We were less than angelic,” confesses Martyn.

“We were in Watford, seventeen minutes from Euston, and so once slightly older we would hop on a train, head for the West End, and get ourselves into the back of a theatre!” Juveniles in the Cinderella company, stop reading now….

Cinderella herself, Laura Baldwin, is a young lady in demand. Fresh out of the award-winning Eugenius in the West End, Laura returns to Shaftesbury Avenue – more precisely, the Adelphi in the Strand – with the eagerly awaited Broadway import Waitress the Musical. Is pantomime just a filler then, just another job? “Oh absolutely not,” laughs Laura.

Katherine Glover, her Prince Charming, has taken a slightly different route – an academic degree from Exeter University and a post-graduate course at Guildford School of Acting. All very high-brow: how does that sit with pantomime? “Well, I played here in last year’s pantomime and I was thrilled when Chris asked me back.”

The schedules are unforgiving. With audience demand peaking next week, the show will play to a jam-packed house on Monday, Christmas Eve, and it restarts with a Boxing Day matinee: barely time to digest the turkey, let alone to catch up with your own family. This reviewer ruefully recalls the panto season a couple of years ago when one actor daughter was playing Cinderella in Margate and the other was Sleeping Beauty in Winchester. Getting them home for Christmas lunch involved military planning and a mere 800 miles of wintry driving! But ask Martyn and Scott, Kathryn and Laura, if they would swap it? Not a chance. As actors always tell each other: remember you’re living the dream, dear. By Kevin Anderson