She’s rather like a cruise ship, the Devonshire Park at this time of year.
The passengers, in five-star comfort, are having the time of their lives, while all around them and below decks, a whole army of crew and cabin staff is working like frantic.
Some of that work is very visible. On stage, the talented Peter Pan company is performing its socks off at energy levels you can scarcely believe. And behind the scenes, the rest of the unseen team gives sweat, toil and tears for the cause.
It’s Monday matinee, and I’m permitted a privileged glimpse backstage on what you might expect a slightly quieter day. Not a bit of it; over half-way through the 62-show run, the auditorium has been filled to spill-over, and the whole theatre pulses with delight. After a deafening final curtain, the Devonshire’s backstage warren is buzzing – and Martyn Knight’s dressing room suddenly becomes a soup kitchen. The kettle steams, the personalised mugs are lined up, the microwave pings, and instant meals are briskly despatched.
“I’ve got it all organised,” beams the Dame, briefly divested of extravagant wigs and costumes. “Over the years I seem to have become chef, social secretary and dispenser of tea and home comforts. We’re a genuine family and we really bond together off-stage.”
For the likes of stage crewman Mick Root and lighting guru Douglas Morgan, the panto isn’t just home from home – it actually is home. Mick is also an EODS stalwart, a man with Eastbourne in his blood and bones, and happily reports “no disasters, just a very happy show.”
Like Mick, Hailsham-born Douglas prefers to let his expert work do the talking but admits that “it’s been quite an operation to stage and light Peter Pan. Flying, special effects, mermaids and crocodiles. We haven’t done anything by halves this year!”
There must be a hint of Zen Buddhism in there somewhere, for while all around him bustle, director Chris Jordan simply glides. The man who has lived and breathed panto for weeks and months is quietly satisfied. “We knew there would be technical as well as artistic challenges, and I think everyone has worked splendidly. We just need to keep it on track now. The houses have been terrific and we may have broken a few records.”
In the foyer, House Managers Natalie and Brian are bracing themselves for the next onslaught. “Lots of the audience can be new to the theatre,” explains Natalie, “which is brilliant, but potentially a bit frayed when some don’t know their front stalls from their dress circle. But they come out afterwards and you can feel the gratitude, and then this theatre is simply the best place in the world. Cold and rainy outside, glowing inside.”
Brian is a bit of a Mr Unflappable. “It’s all about planning. For example, we need to keep a close watch on the ice-cream stocks and sales – and make sure the suppliers can deliver in the middle of a public holiday. Blimey, we’d have revolution if we ran out!
“And the customers do think we’re the fount of all wisdom. The other night we were two minutes from curtain up, and this chap – whom I didn’t know from Adam – rushed into the foyer and asked if his wife had gone in yet! I could only smile politely and assure him that since we had several hundred in the house, and nobody still left out here, the odds were pretty good!” By Kevin Anderson