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Whole New World

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Woodford Pantomime has made the decision to postpone their show for this year’s festive season. Here, Judy Linard looks back on the group’s six decades of performances – which started with Cinderella in 1961 as pictured here – and looks forward to Aladdin in January 2022

Work on this year’s production had already begun back in February when the 12-strong committee met to discuss Rapunzel only four weeks after its close. In that meeting, it was decided that the next pantomime was to be Aladdin, one we have performed eight times before – a traditional pantomime to celebrate our 60th performance, and we planned to pull out all the stops.

As the year progressed, and as our meetings were no longer held in a pub but on Zoom, we booked the hall, designed posters, chose the director, musical director and choreographer, and planned the auditions. But very soon, it became clear that in light of the continuing pandemic – along with the cost of producing a show the size of panto – we could not afford to take any risks that might jeopardise the future and health of our company.

It all began back in November 1961 – a time when the Hawkey Hall was constantly occupied by amateur theatre groups. One of our members was in the office waiting to book our next musical as the manager took a phone call from the regular professional pantomime group cancelling their show. Tickets were already sold and there were only six weeks to go! Immediately, our man promised to save the day – Cinderella auditions took place a day later and rehearsals began. Now, the Sir James Hawkey Hall has been the home of Woodford Pantomime for so long, many refer to it as The Hawkey Hall Pantomime.

Over the years, following each successful show, we have added to what has now become a massive production playing to an audience of over 5,000 people. We are an amateur group and we have to transform the local assembly hall into a venue that can compete with nearby professional shows held at the Harlow Playhouse, The Theatre Royal at Stratford and our nearest, the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, and have to constantly raise our game to do so. This includes hiring tiered seating so that even the very youngest of children can get a good view and installing a lighting and sound rig to keep up with the special effects our audience expects. It takes four days to build the theatre and we need all our volunteers! As all amateur groups in these times, we do struggle and every year we host quiz nights, cabaret nights and other functions to make up any deficit from January.

But over the years, we have built an institution enjoyed by generations, with parents returning from as far as Australia to enjoy the show they remembered as children with their children, and now even with their grandchildren. Brownies and Cubs make up a big proportion of our audience on some nights and these are always the shows with the best audience participation! We are always proud when our audience tells us they were unaware we were not professional!

We thank you, our audience, for all the support you have given us over the years. It is fantastic to be able to tell you that over £2,000 was raised for the Little Princess Trust in our bucket collections after each performance at the beginning of this year. We look forward to welcoming you once again for the Woodford Christmas tradition of a pantomime at the Hawkey Hall in January 2022!

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