Local heroes: A quiet Devonshire village has been gripped by panto fever. Roberta Mock relives her am-dram directorial debut

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The Independent Culture
Even village pantomimes have happy endings. For one horrific moment it seemed all too likely that I would be forced to don a lime green crinoline and yell 'Oh yes you are' at a large malevolent rat. I was sitting in the labour ward at Exeter's Heavitree Hospital, an hour after the first run-through of Dick Whittington. As Rachel, the heavily pregnant Fairy Liquid, was being scanned and prodded, I began to plot ways of writing all her lines on the back of a cardboard and tinsel wand.

She was, mercifully, passed fit after this false alarm but I remained shaken by the experience. An understudy was desperately required. Ex-Act, the Exminster panto society, had never needed an understudy before. Furthermore, every available person in the village had already been roped into the production. My salvation from a thigh-slapping fate came in the form of Lisa, a drama student from Rolls College fifteen miles away. Lisa had never been in a pantomime before, but she had been a serving wench at a medieval banquet.

This seemed an ideal credential, far more suitable than any I possessed. I had never even seen a pantomime before becoming the director of Dick Whittington and had only a vague notion of what they were about: men with hairy chests wore pinnies and stilettoes, buxom women with good legs played virile lads, wallpaper fell down, and audiences screamed 'Look behind you'.

The people of Exminster employed me in good faith. They were far more concerned by my conventional theatre background than by my ignorance of the genre. While accepting the notion of a technical rehearsal, they balked at the idea of group warm-ups, assuming (probably correctly) that this meant aerobics and becoming trees. A suggestion to 'deconstruct the Fairy' laudably fell on bemused ears. My job description was straightforward - get people on and off the stage and make sure they are seen and heard. I was to instill a sense of discipline, but not to demand too much. The object of participation in a village pantomime is largely social. Above all it has to be fun.

In any case, autocratic 'professionalism' would be misplaced within such a democratic institution. The first example of revolt came when the cast voted out the music sub-committee's choice of opening song. 'Spread A Little Happiness' was rejected unanimously at the first rehearsal for being too 'gloomy' and replaced by the more chipper 'Consider Yourself at Home'.

I was forced to acquiesce despite my displeasure at having to move twenty performers through a sub-Dick Van Dyke routine on a postage-stamp size stage.

Technical resources at the village hall are limited. The entrance to the stage is only reached via the doctor's surgery next door. A tiny budget breeds ingenuity and the aforementioned Victorian street scene was costumed with pounds 2 and acres of donated burgundy curtains.

We were forced out of the hall a week before opening to make way for the Wednesday night bowls. Community spirit, however, also means community responsibility. Mrs Tiltman's ballet students prancing to 'Leader of the Gang' and a community song featuring Morecambe and Wise and Prince Charles both unexpectedly appeared for the first time at the dress rehearsal.

The panto suddenly became a vigorous1y exciting cocktail. I was not only astonished by the brevity of Dick's costume and her fish-net stockings, but bowled over by the quality of some of the performances. Rob, a police officer by day, produced a staggeringly funny slurring drunk. Pete, the social worker's King of Mexico, bobbed and nodded with outrageous confidence and Tim, the retired rodeo rider, gleefully thrusted his tight satin shorts to create what is surely an archetypal King Rat.

I know the audience will go wild with appreciation for the pantomime. But then, of course, they will all be related to someone on stage.

'Dick Whittington' can be seen at Victory Hall, Exminster, Devon this Saturday 27 November at 2pm and 7pm

(Photographs omitted)