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Bisley's Pantomime, Gloucestershire

PUBLISHED: 13:02 31 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013

Olli Miles paints spots on the costume of Nigel Rogers, who plays Piddles the dog

Olli Miles paints spots on the costume of Nigel Rogers, who plays Piddles the dog

Katie Jarvis meets Bisley's answer to Lynda Snell and the rest of the cast of A Boy and his Cat

Lynda Snell sorry, Susan Vesey is drilling her pantomime cast in a rehearsal at Bisley WI Village Hall. Dastardly King Rat and his motley crew are attempting to sing What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor? But while theyre verbally valiantly paddling along, the taped music accompaniment is tripping on ahead at the speed of a yacht in the Fastnet Race.

As the tape crosses the line first, the breathless sailors are forced to admit defeat: theres a problem with the speed of the music.

Well, it was you lot who decided to quicken the music when you were in the pub last, says Lynda sorry, Susan a touch archly. Clearly this was a decision taken without the blessing of the shows director.

There are a few guilty soft-shoe shuffles among the cast before a compromise is reached: theyll stop tampering and leave tempo decisions in the hands of the musical director, whos not here tonight.

I grab Susan during a quick lull as various cast members go off to visit the seamstresses for fittings. This is a bit just a bit like the Archers. Isnt it?

Just dont call me Lynda Snell, she says, with feeling.

Oh yes I have! Sorry.

But apart from the fact that Bisley stages a village pantomime each January, the comparison is hardly an accurate one. One key difference is that the very sound of Susans voice doesnt make you want to recycle her as filling for Tom Archers Premium Sausages. Shes a brilliant director who cajoles and encourages her cast of locals into giving outstanding performances whether theyve trodden the boards before or not. Another apposite difference is her sparkling sense of humour. No, definitely not Lynda.

This year, the village is presenting A Boy and his Cat, a Dick Whittington spin-off penned by Susan herself. Its inspired and hilarious. Dick and arch baddie King Rat magically and disastrously change characters after a spell in the mysterious SIDRAT box (We were too worried about BBC copyright to call it the Tardis.) As a result, the jokes are cheesey. No - literally.

Dicks fiance Alice is bitterly confused by her beloveds personality change. Even when he swears he says Edam and he wants us to honeymoon in Cheddar, she whey-lls (sorry again), taken aback by Dicks sudden interest in cheese and other rodent-related rattishness.

There are more than 50 cast members, and many more behind the scenes: doing the lighting; busy fashioning old sheets and curtains into impressive garb. Anyone who wants to be in it is found a part: Someone approached me in the pub last night and said shed always wanted to be in the pantomime was it too late? So we fitted her in, Susan says. Among the stars are Bisley teenager Hatty Davis, who plays Dicks love interest Alice: her obvious talent stands her in good stead for her drama-school ambitions; while 14-year-old Becky Dickenson is busy combining rehearsals with revision for a GCSE module in physics. King Rat is David Klein, whose business interests in commercial property investment involve none of his alter egos dodgy ethics. Fairy Awfuls blazing performance is undampened by the fact that actor, Rob Eaton, is a fire safety consultant. And when 19-year-old Jake Turley isnt break-dancing on stage, hes working as a builder and is also a member of the England shooting team.

What do his friends think of his role as Fred, the drunken sailor? All my mates are coming to see it, he says. They think its funny.

So macho lads dont mind dressing up on stage?

Becky - whose dad, owner of Stancombe Beech Farm Shop, is also a mean hand at scenery painting - rolls her eyes. The boys are the worst, she and Hatty agree. They love wearing the make-up.

The village has been putting on a pantomime for the last seven years. For the last two, Susan has directed it and this is the second of her scripts the company has performed. Nor are they the only cast who rate Susans plays. Since she started writing for Bisley, shes gained an agent, and her scripts have been sold nationally and even further afield. They contain all the traditional elements men playing dames; a comedy duo; a principal girl as the boy. And theyre particularly popular because they have large casts, she says. Schools like them because every child gets to be on stage and everybody gets a showcase moment.

Err - that and the truly appalling jokes, of course.

Dick: I must find a job if I am going to marry Alice. I realise I will have to start at the bottom.

Mayor: What, get a job making toilet paper?

As in most cases, true life can be just as funny as the events on stage. Ask Susan about disasters, and the anecdotes come thick and fast. There was the year when the dame didnt feel too good and was rushed to hospital with pneumonia minus the false eyelashes and bra. And then there was the time when the prompt was asked by an actor Where am I?; the reply came back, I havent a clue! Or when the dame paused for dramatic effect, only for a childs voice to clearly pipe in horrified tones, Mummy, thats a man! No wonder she notes down real-life incident and recycles them in future productions.

Out of Bisleys 800 residents, around 400 come and see the production each year. The rest are in it, jokes Susan.

It may just run for a week in January, but the effects of Bisleys pantomime last all year round. Theres the financial benefit because all the profits go back into the community via the village hall, Susan says. And its also to do with social bonding. There arent many events where you have people aged from seven to 70 all working together. It promotes understanding across the age groups. Its very much a team effort no one person stands out. We all work together to make each years pantomime the best ever.

Could any village do it?

I dont think were unique: there are many villages like Bisley. But what we have is a really good community network: we still have our village shop and post office; two excellent pubs and a farm shop; a local garage and green shop; and we have three churches. Thats where people meet; where local people work and buy.

Whether you trust him or not, King Rat agrees. Camaraderie is exactly what its about, he says. Its an absolute hoot.

Eat your heart out, Lynda Snell.

A Boy and his Cat (Dick Whittington as youve never seen it before) takes place at Bisley WI Village Hall from January 27-30.


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