Thu, 28 Nov 2019
THE popular Corn Exchange pantomime has become one of the town’s fun-filled family traditions, attracting more than 20,000 people from Newbury and beyond each year, packing the venue to the rafters with uplifting and catchy songs, high energy dance routines, comic thrills, plus plenty of magic and sparkle.
This year’s Sleeping Beauty is written and directed by comedy theatre company Plested & Brown (comprising Clare Plested, Adam Brown and Amanda Wilsher). Audiences will be familiar with Clare and Adam and their infamous double-acts in previous pantos, the last being Sleeping Beauty in 2010, and their stint as resident theatre company at New Greenham Arts.
From pantomime double-act to writers/directors is quite a leap and it came about after Plested & Brown took a call from Corn Exchange director Grant Brisland last year.
“We’d performed in the Corn Exchange pantomimes between 2006 and 2011.
“That was a landmark moment in the Plested and Brown journey – so when Grant called up and asked if we’d be interested in taking over the reins and creating our very own panto, we jumped at the chance.”
Adam Brown Clare Plested
Clare and Adam met at university in 1998 and have been writing comedy together for 20 years, so they are great friends as well as professional colleagues, which they agree helps their writing process.
“We make each other laugh and I think that really helps, but being friends also means that we can be honest with each other, so if something doesn’t work, we are great editors to each other.
“We also work with our fabulous co-writer Amanda Wilsher – she’s worked with P&B on all our previous shows and has a knack of refining our ideas and making sure we get the laughs.”
The talented duo started their ‘journey’ as resident company at Greenham Arts, writing and performing their own material, for which they count themselves very lucky as it elevated them from living hand-to-mouth, like many a fledgling company trying to get themselves known.
“We’d self-produced two shows before starting at Greenham and it’s very difficult doing everything on a shoestring, like calling in favours from friends to make a show work.
“For example, for our first trip to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1999, we took about 15 people up as ‘flyerers’, tech crew and the like and we were only staying in a two bedroom flat… it was madness!”
Although they look back on those experiences fondly, that level of intensity was difficult to maintain, so having the legitimacy of a residency with a venue, as well as office and rehearsal space, made a huge difference.
“It also leant us the kudos to be able to attract funding and develop the company further. Without the support of The Corn Exchange and New Greenham Arts I seriously don’t think P&B would have succeeded the way it did.”
Success ensued for several years, with the company touring the country from their Newbury base, before taking a break when Adam landed a leading part in the blockbuster movie The Hobbit, which took him off to New Zealand for 18 months.
In the meantime, Clare forged her craft as a comedian and is now acknowledged as one of the foremost improvisers in the UK.
Now the team is reunited and loving every minute.
“It’s been so good for us to come back together and just be silly again. We haven’t laughed this much in ages”.
This year’s panto will be a bit of a departure from what audiences might expect, as Plested & Brown have been brought on board to push the boundaries – while still respecting the traditions and magic of pantomime, of course.
“It’s been an absolute scream getting back to what we do best. We’re really pleased with the result – its modern, fresh, dynamic, but still recognisable. Most importantly, it’s funny – well, we think so…
“Panto has a rich tradition which is really important to follow, people enjoy that familiarity. We need to make sure that everyone is enjoying themselves.
“We don’t think it’s enough to just do it for the kids, it should be for the whole family – we like to think of it like kids movies, how Pixar create engaging, funny stories which have genuine appeal for adults as much as children.
“When I was little and sat next to my dad laughing in the audience, I would laugh – now, I may not fully understand the joke, but I was laughing lots because my dad was. I think this is magic!”
Adam Brown and Clare Plested as the king and queen in Sleeping Beauty at the Corn Exchange in 2010
The actual scriptwriting process for Sleeping Beauty began early in the year – around February – because Clare was about to have a baby, Amanda’s diary was chock-a-block and Adam was flying to Canada to film a movie in May.
“But I guess in many ways these things start as soon as you’re asked.
“So when Grant first called, we immediately got excited and started picturing how things might take shape… How do we tell the story? Who we might we include in our dream cast?
“Once we’d agreed to take on the task, we all met up (over a glass of wine) and made a list of what we would put into the perfect panto and, we’re pleased to say, you’ll see a lot of things from the list on stage this year.”
Just how long does it take to write a pantomime?
“It’s not just a question of how long you spend sitting at your computer typing, inspiration can strike at any time – sometimes Clare might text at 10pm with the perfect song choice or Amanda might email us from a hotel room abroad with a running gag that riffs on a contemporary news item. It’s all-consuming.
“On the other hand, I might be at the gym when an idea strikes…Who am I kidding? That never happens – the gym, not the ideas.”
But modern technology helps – no need to go into lockdown around the writing table these days.
“Like we say, ideas come the whole time so WhatsApp is useful, plus we can share documents online too.
“We did get together for the best part of a week near the start of the process to really nail things down, but since then, it’s been a process of refining and developing, which we can do remotely, with meetups every couple of weeks – even though we are in almost constant contact.”
A little local knowledge goes a long way when it comes to writing in local jokes, with Adam being a Hungerford boy and Clare having worked in Newbury for several years.
“Some panto scripts can be a bit ‘insert local reference here’, but having experienced the joys of the Robin Hood Roundabout and the layout of the shops does allow us to be more nuanced.”
And they find keeping the script topical a juggling act.
“The key thing is keeping it entertaining and there’s a lot going on at the moment that’s just not funny... (the B word).”
Plested & Brown’s humour is a ‘one size fits all’ and they don’t differentiate between child-friendly and adult jokes.
“There are lots of things that are just funny – we don’t set out to write gags just for kids and there’s nothing that we’d consider ‘adult’, but there are lots of moments of buffoonery and a few cheeky lines in there.”
And the pair are excited about opening night – Adam’s even bought a new shirt for the occasion.
“We are super-excited to have gathered a stellar cast for this panto. Actors with serious comedy chops, a West End leading lady and a selection of the UK’s best improvisers.”
Members of the cast of this year's pantomime
They have also brought back local children into the cast which, they say, is “a brilliant thing to have in panto, it gives it that community feel, which is so important. Plus it opens up so much more comedy potential because they can really steal the show!.
“Newbury is certainly in for a treat, Christmas can’t come quick enough.”
But will they still be friends at the end of the process?
“Lets hope so… pantos always have a happy ending, right?”
This article first appeared in Out&About magazine, winter 2019 for more Out&About news click here