I remember our second ever pantomime here,’ reflects Danny fondly, as we sit backstage in the Theatre Royal’s ‘green room’ – a traditional name for the communal area in a theatre where thespians gather before a performance. Whether derived from the Cockney rhyming slang of ‘Greengage’ for a stage, or because theatrical types used to use the phrase ‘behind the green’ of the scenery to denote the backstage area, nobody really knows, but Newcastle’s principal theatre acknowledges the tradition in its decor: with green sofas, matching furnishings and a verdant, turf-like rug underfoot. ’It was Aladdin,’ he continues, ‘and the first act ended with me in the cave. Our director, Michael, came to me in rehearsals very excitedly and said: “Danny, for the big closing number of the first half, I’ve got you this cape, and it’s going to spread across the whole stage and loads of people will have to hold it.” At the time, we were all like: “wow! A big cape to close the first half!” It’s incredible, because now we’ve got life-size helicopters and flying cars and all these huge special effects, but back when we were first coming here, the big talking point was an oversized cape!’
Through his comedic hijinks, hapless hilarity and all-round mastery of the stage, Danny – with the help of his famous-funnyman father, Clive Webb – has helped the Theatre Royal’s panto to successfully carve out a much-coveted spot in the North East’s cultural history. This year’s production of Beauty and the Beast will mark the father-and-son duo’s 15th consecutive year performing in Qdos Entertainment’s festive offering here and, as well as their now-recognisable humour, their willingness to keep pushing the boundaries of pantomime stagecraft and learn at least one brand new (often fairly dangerous) skill every year helps the production to consistently keep North East audiences on the edge of their seats.
‘A lot of the new ideas in pantomime start here,’ reasons Danny. ‘The special effects are huge, all the comedy routines keep changing to keep things fresh, and it’s normally one of the first pantos in the country to open. So this pantomime really is special – not just for us, but it’s also regarded in the business as being one of the best in the country. We do tour for the rest of the year, but it’s just great coming here because, for our type of humour, the Geordies really do just love it. They just really get that silly, slapstick comedy.’
As he talks about the industry-leading special effects this panto has boasted for a good number of years now, my attention is briefly caught by a television screen over our heads, which is currently showing live footage of the stage. As technicians crawl over the screen like ants, tweaking the set here and making adjustments to the lighting there, I notice a kaleidoscopic backdrop that twinkles with icy blue, sparkling silver and blushing pink, as well as a gigantic animatronic wolf shrouded in shadow (it must be at least double the height of the room we now sit in), whose eyes glint knowingly back at me.
With four weeks to go before opening night, Beauty and the Beast had already sold a staggering 78,000 tickets across its eight-week run – making it, once again, one of the fastest-selling pantomimes in the UK. But it isn’t just down to the efforts of Danny and Clive that the Theatre Royal’s festive production has distinguished itself above the others in the region and, indeed, the country. Nor is it solely because of the dazzling special effects you will see here and nowhere else, spectacular though they may be. No, the success of this particular cultural offering seems to be that it is created by a cast and crew that now, by and large, consider themselves something of a family – in some cases, quite literally. For Danny and I are not alone in this green room; sitting beside us is theatrical stalwart and infamous ‘villain’ Steve Arnott, who will mark his 11th year performing here this Christmas, and Laura Evans, who returns to the North East as the Theatre Royal’s leading lady for a fourth consecutive year. Add to that Chris Haywood, the panto’s flamboyant dame, and ‘village idiot’ Mick Potts (who, as Danny’s younger brother, is helping to keep theatre very much in the family), both of whom have been performing in the Theatre Royal’s pantomime for the last 12 years, and it’s clear that it’s not just audiences who have trouble staying away.
‘I can’t believe Laura came back after her first year!’ Danny jokes, when I mention the longevity of cast and crew.
‘It’s mainly because Danny makes me laugh, and he’s made me laugh since the minute I started,’ Laura giggles. ‘It’s work, but we do have lots of fun.’
‘As a comic, it’s important you have a principle girl that you can really have a laugh with and can do stuff to onstage, knowing they’re not really going to worry,’ Danny smiles wryly. ‘Some actresses don’t like it when you do certain things, they’re worried you’ll smudge their lipstick or something, whereas Laura is… well, she was like that at the start, but we’ve worn her in! But we’re all mates, we get on so well and that transfers over to the stage – we really do have a proper laugh and that’s part of it all.’
‘That’s the nice thing about it, that we all get on so well,’ Steve agrees. ‘And as soon as you walk through the stage door, all the staff here say hello and stop for a chat, from the cleaners right up to the big boss. Little things like that really make a difference.’
‘I do really think it’s the people that make this panto so special,’ agrees Laura. ‘Both on and off stage. I’ve done a lot of pantos in my lifetime, but no-one speaks about their local panto like they do this one. I think audiences are just more up for it here, and we’ve managed to keep a really loyal fanbase – Danny and Clive especially. It seems more of a tradition here than anywhere else in the country. It’s a real staple part of the North East’s Christmas.’
For North East local Steve especially, the Theatre Royal has always played an important role in his life, and it’s not just his acting on stage where his influence in the pantomime is felt – as a nationally award-winning scenic artist, he is also instrumental in the company’s set design.
‘We don’t only create our own stock that we use for our Christmas productions,’ explains Steve. ‘We also hire sets out to other companies during the year. After a few years some of the cloths get a bit worn and tired, so we need to replace them, so I help a lot with that side of things too. But I’ve been painting since I was 10 years old. An old scenic artist called Laurie Hettick, who’s father used to paint at the old Empire Theatre and here too, taught me to paint. So it’s just something that I’ve always done. When I was a boy I just wanted to do everything – I wanted to write scripts, perform, paint the scenery – and I pretty much do all of that now.
‘I first discovered a love of theatre shortly before I joined the Whitley Bay Pantomime Society, for which I’m now President, strangely enough,’ Steve continues. ‘That’s a sign of getting old, isn’t it? I still write the script there every year. But it was the Theatre Royal I’d always come to, every year, as a boy. When I left school I started work at Bainbridge’s, which is now John Lewis, working in the display department there. In my lunch hours, I used to come and stand at the dock door here and watch the shows be loaded in. It didn’t matter what it was – opera, ballet, plays – I was here every week, and when it came to the pantomime season I was here three or four times a week, I just loved it. I’d watch all my heroes – the dames were Nat Jackley and George Lacy, the villains (that I’ve ended up playing) were played then by the likes of Alan Curtis. So I studied those people and that’s how I learned – from the greats. There’s such an art to panto that many people overlook, because it’s all played out. When you’re in a play you talk to the other characters onstage side-on, but it’s a definite art form, the playing of a pantomime, because it’s all out to the front. Not in a thousand years did I ever think that I’d end up here, having performed in 11 consecutive productions.’
In an unprecedented break from tradition, Steve will not be donning his most exuberantly-villainous attire as the panto’s resident ‘baddie’ this year. Instead, he will be one of the good guys: a narrating candlestick, to be precise. So what else can audiences expect from Beauty and the Beast?
‘We have tried a more traditional Beauty and the Beast out in a few other venues, but kids were always asking us why it wasn’t more like the Disney film,’ explains Steve. ‘So Mike [Newcastle’s own Michael Harrison, who co-writes, produces and directs the show] has Disney-fied the story.’
‘It’s one of the best Disney films out there,’ Danny continues, ‘and it really lends itself to that enchanting, fairytale element. So we’re still going to have all of the amazing special effects, but in a different way this time. It’s going to be magical.’
Spectacular choreography, glittering sets, breath-taking special effects and a soaring musical score all form the backdrop to this tale, which promises to be full of all the adventure, slapstick comedy, innuendo and the near-the-knuckle jokes we’ve come to expect from these theatrical veterans. And, surely, more hilarious improvisation?
‘Danny likes to improvise a lot,’ smiles Laura. ‘I actually really like it when we laugh unplanned. Often when Danny does something new onstage, a new joke or something, and I’m not expecting it, I’ll get the giggles for real, but the audience always seem to laugh along here, so I always think they’re really nice moments.’
‘Yeah, Laura gets the giggles really easily!’ Danny laughs. ‘I mean, we do have quite a tight script, but there are moments in a show where I think: right, this audience is really up for it, I’m going to have a bit of a play around here…’
‘The art that conceals the art, of course, is making it look as though you’ve improvised, when it’s actually something we do in every performance,’ reveals Steve. ‘It’s called “codding”, you “cod” something up. That’s the secret to making it feel fresh for every audience.’
‘Absolutely,’ Danny seconds. ‘A lot of people come up to me and say: “I was there the night you fell off the stage!” And I’ll just smile, and they’ll ask: “was that meant to happen?” And I’ll just shake my head quickly and go: “oh no, of course not!” It’s funny though, the year I’d “fallen” off the stage, there was a lady who had come to see the show twice that year, and she came up to me after the second show she’d seen and said: “I saw you in that show where you fell off the stage, and now I’ve come to see it again I can’t believe you’ve still not learned your lesson!”’
And as for the new skill Danny has learned especially for this year’s panto?
‘Well, last year we had the wire, I learned to tap dance one year, another time I learned a magic trick with doves,’ says Danny, clearly stalling for time, until he admits: ‘I’m not going to tell you what it is this year until people can come and see it for themselves.’
‘I’ll tell you if he won’t!’ laughs Laura.
‘Alright, alright!’ Danny interjects. ‘All I’m going to say is, it involves throwing knives…’
Beauty and the Beast is now being performed at Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and will run until 19th January. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.theatreroyal.co.uk