When I arrived at work one morning in January 2016, a mysterious letter marked ‘private’ had been popped under my ‘palatial office-cum-broom cupboard’ door. I’d been warned to expect it, as it had been left for me the night before with our house manager, by a member of the audience for Beyond the Barricade. Inside was a little hand-written note and a typed sheet of A4, which was an account of a conversation between a nursery school teacher and a four year old pupil. The four year old was my daughter Robyn, the teacher was the inspirational Barbara Evans and the conversation had occurred 32 years ago. And the memories came flooding back…
I had begun work at the Civic Theatre in September of that year (1983) and by December I was starting to get the hang of things and was beginning to get seriously bitten by the bug of live theatre. I have to confess it had been a fair while since I had last seen a panto, possibly not since I was four years old myself and saw Charlie Drake in panto in Coventry, where at some point he picked me up and greeted me with his famous catchphrase ‘Hello My Darling!’.
However I digress… back to the 1983/4 pantomime at the Civic Theatre; this was Peter Pan starring David Yip, best known at the time for his role in TV’s The Chinese Detective. Other members of staff warned me panto was going to be hard work: two shows most days for six weeks, we’d get through thousands of ice creams and fizzy drinks and that this mixed with all the excitement would end with the occasional unfortunate ‘accident’. Never mind, it was all in a day’s work. They also said it would be tremendous fun and how right they were.
The families of Theatre staff were invited along to be a guinea pig audience for the pantomime dress rehearsal and so my four year old Robyn found herself experiencing her first visit to the theatre. And what an impression it made on her.
Here’s Robyn’s account of Peter Pan as retold by Barbara, her confidante and teacher…
Nursery conversation with a four year old girl:
Robyn to teacher: “Phew! It was terrible all those people injured… it was murder, absolute murder. It was like murder at night.”
Teacher: “What was?”
Robyn: “Peter Pan. When they learnt to fly Peter said, as the stars went out one by one, it got so black it was just as well they had brought their night lights – and ‘please don’t fall asleep otherwise you’ll fall into the sea’ – I mean lagoon.”
Teacher: “And here’s the crocodile, tick tock, tick tock”
Robyn: “No, no a clock goes tick, tick, tick… Now Peter fights Hook and is injured twice in the arm and as he lays in bed Hook puts poison in his medicine.”
Teacher: “Blackberry juice?”
Robyn: “No poisonous berry juice, but Tinkerbell saves him by drinking the medicine herself and dies. Then when Hook captures them on the ship he fires a canon by lighting the magazine and he makes the boys walk the plank and says to their mother Wendy – ‘Well mother have you anything to say to your boys’ and she says ‘well as you know I am not your real mother, but all I ask is that you die like true Englishmen’ and then he ties her to the mast. Eventually he’s pushed over the side where the crocodile is patiently waiting and he gobbles him up and eats so much he’s sick and up comes the clock!”
Teacher: “Of course there are no girls in the Land of Lost Boys?”
Robyn: “No, well Peter says that was because the nannies never noticed when boys fell out of their prams but girls were far too sensible to do that.”
Needless to say Robyn has never forgotten her first theatre experience and I know many, many little people will have had their first theatre experience with us here at the Civic Theatre. I’m glad to say she grew up to love theatre and the arts and was back to sit beside me to watch this year’s panto, Cinderella, and of course I ‘grew up’ to become the director of the Theatre!
We are on the verge of a new era now, as we plan for the restoration of the Theatre and look forward to introducing new generations of theatre-goers to the special magic of live theatre, which can take you anywhere, including Never Land.
Keep up with all the latest news about the restoration of Darlington Civic Theatre by visiting our blog spot.
With special thanks to Barbara Evans and Robyn of course!