Panto: Behind the Scenes

Panto: Behind the Scenes

And everywhere else

Headless rats are flirting. Life-size Jammy Dodgers are lined up against a temporary wall. And we're being asked to move a camera lens from the top of an electric car — The Krankies are about to joyride it on to stage. Dick Whittington opened panto season at Birmingham Hippodrome this week and we got above, under and behind the scenes with the cast and crew in the build up to their third ever performance.

Sixty minutes until curtain up

We're two precarious flights above the stage inspecting the flying system. Consisting of 81 bars, each bar is capable of 'flying' up to 150kg of scenery in and out of the stage. It takes 2000 working hours to unload, rig and assemble the individual components which make up this colossus of a production. And with 20 backdrops and more than 30 pyrotechnic cues across its two acts, the backstage crew is utterly critical to every part of everything you see in front of the curtain.

Thirty-five minutes until curtain up

All is calm across the labyrinth of dressing rooms, rigs and endless amorphous corridors. Except if you're Lucy Westnidge. She's the company manager. And it's her job to ensure the cast of 21 principals and two teams of young ensemble (known as Panto Babes) are in the right place, at the right time, made-up and wardrobed. As the 30 minute call goes out (always 35 minutes before curtain up — being late as an actor isn't really an option), she's passing notes from the director to Andrew Ryan (pictured), known as Dame Sarah The Cook for his next 69 performances. He's got 11 costume changes, and they generally involve both new wig and bust.

Three minutes until curtain up

Activity increases in the wings and around Prompt's Corner, stage left. Historically known for saving the blushes of mind-blanking actors, the role of the prompt has now transformed into something akin to a logistical nerve centre. With a direct line to (and eyes on) the orchestra's pit, Amanda Hillhouse coordinates the 30-strong backstage crew and whole team through scene changes, lighting cues and pyrotechnic happenings all in accordance with her annotated binder.

Thirty seconds until curtain up

Lights are dimming, actors are prostrating and a swarm of rodents suddenly surround us before heading on stage. The rats (also known as the students of Birmingham Stage School) are dancing and laughing and gossiping with but a curtain between them and the illusion that is panto. A chord strikes out and the swarm become the expertly trained army of performers that their intensely muscular physiques already attest to. And we're off.

Ten minutes after curtain up

On stage it's frenetic. A big number cedes to a solo performance and, back stage, chairs are pulled up while fairies and kings compare notes on Christmas shopping. Dizzied and dancing out of people's way, we avoid glittery bloomers, giant animatronic creations we won't spoil by expanding on, and a Babe dressed as a cupcake, before obstructing Dame Sarah as she thunders into the wings for her 30 second costume change. "Don't mind me, daahling," she pauses, before galloping on. We like it backstage. Okay, we love it.

Dick Whittington continues until January 29. Tickets. More pics