Beauty of a debut pantomime for Henley Players

The birth of Henley’s first ever pantomime sounds like something out of a fairytale. Entertainment writer WAYNE SAVAGE finds out how a casual coffee date has brought an entire village together.

ONE minute you’re having a chat over coffee, the next you’re forming an amateur dramatics group and staging the village’s first ever pantomime.

Months later, the newly-created Henley Players are getting ready to raise the curtain for Beauty and the Beast at the village’s community centre.

“I opened my big mouth one day and said the theatre ought to be used for even more,” says director Kay Swinger, who moved into the village nearly two years ago and co-wrote the pantomime with her daughter Carys.

“Big mistake; we were chatting over a cup of coffee and Kevin [Griggs, the parish council chairman] said it would be nice to have a pantomime involving local people would I like to do it. After great thought, actually two minutes,” she laughs, “I went well um okay.”

While the centre is constantly bustling with activity and popular with other visiting theatrical companies and musical groups Kevin felt there was always something missing.

“We’ve had Henley’s got Talent, that type of thing where people let their hair down and show off a little bit. That’s probably what stimulated me; when you stand at the back with the sound and the lights and see what people do, you think if we can just engage them in a proper show it would be amazing.”

Most Read

He’s loved pantomime since he was a child, watching his sisters perform in them when they were younger.

“I missed that; there’s something about an amateur pantomime that if really well done really kicks with good singing, good acting and…”

“Dreadful jokes,” interrupts Kay, who remembers playing the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella.

“I adored coming on in my lovely big floaty meringue of a dress, getting it caught on the set every night, going back to my dressing room with a needle and cotton to stitch it up,” she laughs.

Kay and Kevin arranged a meeting to see if there was even enough interest to pursue the idea. To their surprise, about 35 people turned up.

The next step was to decide which pantomime to perform and which script to use.

Kay and Carys - who have worked together on different productions with various groups over the years and will be playing Fairy Liquid and the wicked uncle respectively this time around - decided to write the script themselves rather than hire one to save money and so they had the freedom to involve everyone who showed an interest in performing.

“It’s been huge fun; a real challenge,” adds Kay, who’s never written a pantomime script before.

“The first perhaps 100 words were hard, but after that it just went like that; it just flew. We’ve all seen pantomimes before.”

It’s been a real community effort.

The Henley Painting Group, which uses the community centre, helped with the scenery and Michelle Steward’s School of Dance has some of her little girls dressing up as roses to perform a little dance for the show.

It doesn’t stop there. Children at the village primary school entered a competition to design the front cover of the programme and the stage extension has been built out of Kay’s old summer house to save more money.

“I think we’ve pulled the village very nicely together,” she says.

“Beauty and the Beast was cast using the great talent which came to light. We were delighted when we were able to cast almost all the roles with people who either lived in or had close connections with the village. A lot of backstage positions are filled with local people. I have to say it’s very noticeable how everybody in the cast has come together because the first few didn’t really know each other and they were all a little bit shy. Now they really have gelled.”

“That’s the main thing, community,” adds Kevin, who’ll be working the lights during the show. “That’s what we wanted to do, bring everybody together.”

Even the band that’s been put together for the show is made up of villagers. The 18-strong cast range from seven-years-old to 70 and many haven’t put a foot on the stage before so have been busy learning some stage craft.

Villagers not taking part are quite envious of those who are.

“We’ve got some people who have come to rehearsals who have sat at the back and said ‘why can’t we be in it’ or ‘we wish we had got involved’ so we’ve already got that enthusiasm for next year or whenever we decide to do it again,” laughs Kevin.

Beauty and the Beast runs from December 28-29 at 7.30pm and December 30 at 2.30pm.