Panto? Oh yes it is

It may be March, but tickets for Hotwells 'Aladdin' are like gold dust.
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The Independent Culture
There are two hot tickets in Bristol this weekend. Not the Theatre Royal's acclaimed production of As You Like It - plenty of seats still available. The only venues sold out weeks ago are the Hippodrome, for the English National Ballet, and a considerably smaller institution, a mile away out in Hotwells, the Hope Centre, where tickets for the annual pantomime in its usual eccentric March slot, are like gold dust.

The Hope Centre is a converted 18th-century stone congregational chapel, standing squarely among ivy-clad gravestones in the hilly tangle of Georgian and Victorian terraces comprising Hotwells and Cliftonwood. This is a homely, mixed area, middle class mostly, but rarely posh, a sort of Notting Hill to the Kensington of its grander neighbour, Clifton. In the 18 years since its rescue from demolition and conversion into a community centre, the Hope Centre has offered theatre and music shows, sports, a creche, yoga classes, dances, a weekly market, and lunches of startlingly high quality in its small schoolroom-like cafe. Since 1981, the Hope Centre's flagship fund-raiser has been the pantomime, an institution of sufficient legend that relatives and expatriate Hotwellians converge for the weekend from as far afield as Sussex.

Why March? "A group of us were sitting around one day after Christmas saying how dull January and February are, so we decided to fill the gap," says Sue Stops, pantomime founder and joint director of this year's production of Aladdin. It's a Wednesday evening in February and already halfway through the traditional production schedule: Mrs Stops, a teacher, has an astute grasp of thespian behaviour, formed by 17 years of pantos and a brother in the business as a member of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre Company. "Problems at this stage? Getting them to learn their lines. And project them, now. The trouble with amateurs is they save themselves for the night."

On stage, Tim Stevens, a chartered surveyor, is grappling with the nuances of the character of the High Pong, ruler of Hong Pong (this Aladdin is set, for reasons no one can specify, in Hong Kong). The trouble is the Hong Pong isn't exactly good nor really bad. Paul Crossthwaite, a physics teacher and father of one of the most pantomime-imbued families in Hotwells, is refining the leers and cackles of his Abanazar - "just about the nastiest, slimiest and most dishonest person to appear in the Hotwells panto" - while his 15-year-old daughter, Jenny, making her starring debut as Princess Bel, adjusts the kimono she's found for her costume. Upstairs, social worker Cathy Crossthwaite, Jenny's mother, is cutting out costume patterns and studying dance routines as a member of the Ambras, a comic female dance chorus named after the local street, ever since their debut with The Dance of the Ambra Vales. This rehearsal begins with an announcement by Rick Goldsmith, chartered accountant, treasurer of the Hope Centre management committee and temporary eunuch. "Bit of a cash crisis this month at the Hope Centre - if everyone could try to get ticket money in advance it'd be a great help."

The pantomime, it transpires, is of greater significance than ever this year. Bristol council leisure committee has just cut Hope Centre's support grant by pounds 6,000, on the grounds that it's not an arts institution, which threatens the operation of the centre's programme through the summer and could in turn undermine credibility in applying for pounds 700,000 of lottery money to fund a major expansion. The pantomime, entirely paid for by its participants, brings in pounds 1,000 a night in ticket money, a significant chunk in a total turnover of pounds 100,000. Annie Scott, architect to the Hope Centre scheme, Sour of Abanazar's baddie trio, Sweet, Sour and Sorry, and mother of two other architects, one Wishy Washy, the other resting, explains the economic situation. "We want to excavate the vault to enlarge the bar, reopen the main entrance and expand the auditorium. The folding seating needs to be replaced, to increase capacity from 110 to 300, which will allow bigger audiences and more profits."

The success of the Hotwells pantomime is founded on more than just community spirit and high jinks. The scripts manage to balance broad humour, fun for the kids and more sophisticated overtones for the adults. Centres of excellence have developed in the fields of both scenery and music, overseen respectively by Janet Magrie and Sue Otty. Janet Magrie, an art historian, first heard of the pantomime from a fellow passenger on an architectural coach tour in Germany, moved to Bristol, signed on as scene painter and got hooked. This year, she's marshalling a couple of dozen volunteers and a budget of pounds 30, most of which has gone on a huge roll of white nylon to create willow-pattern backdrops, caves and castles. Local artist Liz Vibert is painting two giant portraits of the High Pong and scientific editor and puppeteer Di Steed is creating a giant working mangle for the laundry scene.

Sue Otty, solicitor, music teacher and community activist, is directing as always a full eight-piece band, including a member of the National Youth Chamber Orchestra on cello.

On Thursday night, 30 hours of increasingly frantic rehearsals bear fruit, and amid much wishing of "break a leg", it's first night. On the whole, things go well. Tim Stevens invests the High Pong with sufficient mournful quirkiness to get laughs. Local GP Keith Erskine is a splendidly fruity Widow Twanky and a coup de theatre is provided by the eunuchs' chorus, operating temporarily as the Fish Gutters, who produce handfuls of pink foam entrails from their fish in mid-song to shower the audience. On the other hand, the washing-lines jam and the smoke shows a tendency to follow rather than precede the genies. Afterwards, in the Rose of Denmark, the cast post-mortem the evening - the blunders, the triumphs, the celebrities in the audience like the Lord Mayor and the actor Norman Bowler from Emmerdale, whose wife, Di, is an Ambra. Sue Stops, trenchant as ever, has more serious matters in mind - professional peer approval. "Terry Milton of the Hedley Players is coming on Saturday. They're really good. We're going to have to tighten it all up."

Hotwells 'Aladdin' is sold out. For further information about events at the Hope Centre, Hotwells, Bristol call 0117-921 5271

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