Festive fun with Jack and his mum as Coventry's Belgrade Theatre takes panto online for Christmas.

It’s panto as normal (well, almost) for Belgrade favourites Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth, as they get ready to entertain audiences with yet more magical mayhem. Jack And The Beanstalk may have gone online this year, but that doesn’t mean there’ll be fewer festive frolics. 
What’s On caught up with writer & director Iain to find out more about what viewers can expect...

What have been the particular challenges connected to producing a pantomime online, Iain?
We couldn’t have a full cast because of Covid, so Craig Hollingsworth and I play most of the parts, which will give the audiences a giggle. We do have a principal boy, a princess, an ensemble guy and eight children, so we’ve done pretty well. Secondly, we don’t have the rehearsal time we usually have for a live show. We had two weeks’ rehearsal, and then what we performed was the final performance. No time to let it bed in. Thirdly, there’s no live audience - nobody to play to and nobody to judge the timing of gags, routines etc. With no feedback in the way of reactions and laughter, we have to use our instincts to play the show.

What makes Jack & The Beanstalk a good panto choice to perform online?
It gives us so much to play with on TV. We can do things on screen that we can’t do in the theatre. Things like, make characters appear and disappear before the viewers’ eyes, have a massive giant played by an actor, see the beanstalk actually magically grow up to the sky, have lots of magical sparkles and effects. We have a social-distancing cow, and the infamous lemon meringue routine. Jack has so many magical elements - a giant, a fairy, magic beans, the beanstalk, a messy slosh routine, great characters like Fleshcreep and Dame Trott, and lots of fun!

What are the secrets of writing a good pantomime?
A good strong story with great characters that you care about. Telling a story is all we have to do. We have our strong story characters that drive the narrative no matter what, and this allows the comic characters like the Dame and comic to weave in and out of the story, causing a bit of mayhem and lots of fun. This, along with classic routines and great songs, completes the package.

Across the years, which of your pantomimes has been your favourite?
I enjoy all of them, but if I had to choose, I think it would be our Beauty And The Beast. This was a challenge when we did it the first time, as the Disney film had just come out and we felt we had to give a nod to their version because that was the one the kids would know. We had to make sure our Beast was brilliant, and that his transformation from the prince was impressive. We had to make sure our baddies worked and that Beauty and her father were truly characters that the audience cared about.                          I love the show because the Beast is the baddie at the beginning, but by the end everyone wants Beauty to marry him and be with him. We also have a really good Dame & son duo in the panto, which offers so much in terms of anarchy and fun.

What attracted you to the world of pantomime in the first place?
Over the years, as an actor, I’ve seen many pantos in lots of different venues. My first professional panto was in a tiny theatre called The Little Theatre, in Inverness. I love having the opportunity to create fun characters and work on tried-and-tested traditional routines. Also, the contact with the audience is something I love - although there are many actors who hate it! I’d seen my fair share of dreadful pantomimes and vowed that if I ever got the chance to write and direct my own, I would make them the best they could be. The audiences deserve nothing less. Bob Hamlyn at the Belgrade gave me that chance, and I’ve been doing them ever since.

Which panto character is your favourite to write/script?
I do love writing for the Dame, as she can be so off-the-wall and anarchic, but also crucial to the storyline. However, the best character of all to write for is Abanazar, the evil sorcerer in Aladdin. He’s the baddest baddie of them all, and it’s a joy to write for him.

What does Iain Lauchlan do with his time when he’s not writing, directing & performing in the Belgrade pantomime?
I have my own TV studio in north Oxfordshire, where I film my own children’s programmes for my online channel, CheekyChimpsTV.com

I also direct, write and produce programmes for other people who film in my studio.  If I’m not working in the studio, then I’m in my workshop making someone something. I’ve just finished oak gates for our local church. I’m a carpenter as well as a performer. Also, my new granddaughter takes up a bit of time!

How has the ‘Covid-era experience’ been for you, Iain, with its lockdowns, its ‘new normals’ and its various other challenges?
Covid has been a challenge. I lost all the work in my studio during the first lockdown and also all my writing and performing work. The theatre and TV sector has really suffered and is still suffering. It was a joy to do the online panto, and I’m also about to film my Santa show for the pre-school audience. Santa’s Christmas Rescue will hopefully be performed to socially distanced audiences at the Belgrade in December, but we also have a filmed version we can stream if the live performances are unable to take place.

What are the main reasons why audiences should check out Jack And The Beanstalk Online this Christmas?
Covid has written off most of our year. As we’re speaking, we’re in a second lockdown and still seem to be at the mercy of the virus. The positive thing about the lockdowns is that we all have a common experience of queues, lack of toilet roll, social distancing, online shopping, Zoom calls and all the rest - not to mention Joe Wicks! Well, we’ve included all these experiences in our online panto, and it makes for very funny viewing! So don’t miss out on pantomime this year. Bring it into your own home and have a great experience with the family. I hope everyone enjoys it

Jack And The Beanstalk is available to view online from Tuesday 1 to Thursday 31 December. For further information and to purchase tickets, visit belgrade.co.uk