Stage by stage

From board members who think panto is beneath them, to theatre snobs who think they’re above it and a host of colourful characters in between, Christian Lisseman enters the wonderful world of am-dram

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There’s tension and excitement on stage at Bolton Little Theatre tonight as the cast of amateur actors start another rehearsal for this year’s panto, Aladdin. Some of them are almost “off book”, while others seem nowhere near. They haven’t quite nailed down the dance moves for the opening number and there’s some technical problems with the sound. It’s less than three weeks to go until the show opens to a sell-out ten -performance run.

“If I can make someone laugh I’ve done my job. Everyone needs that laugh, that happiness.”

“That rehearsal was a tricky one,” Jess Haslam, who plays the titular lead, later admits. “There’s always one where it’s like: ‘That was awful, we’re never going to do it!’ But we bounce back and the thing is we’re such a team and whatever is happening, we’re facing it together.”

Bolton is a hotbed of amateur performance. It has more societies than any other town in the North West of England, possibly more than anywhere else in the country, says Paul Cohen, the director of this year’s panto. Aside from the well-respected Little Theatre, which has operated from its home down a back street in a not particularly salubrious part of Bolton since 1931, there are a range of amateur dramatic societies, operatic groups and amateur orchestras in the town. There are so many different societies there the town has its own umbrella group, BATS (Bolton Amateur Theatre Societies), initially set up to co-ordinate productions so that there weren’t three different performances of, say, Oklahoma in one season, but it also allows groups to share props, costumes and scenery.

With so many societies in the town, is there much rivalry between the different societies and the different actors within them?

“I’d like to say no, but I know that there is,” Cohen says.

Like many people in the room, Cohen’s love affair with drama started with a school play. He went on to join various acting societies in Bolton and set up the Children’s Amateur Theatre Society with his wife in 1994 – a youth theatre group that now hosts around 120 kids a week.

Cohen sees his job in both the panto and in the amateur youth theatre as a mentor and a coach. “To nurture people, teaching them stage craft and the like. They arrive really shy not wanting to do anything and my job is getting them to the point when they’re happy to step out on stage and take some risks.”

When not running the youth theatre or directing a show, Cohen, who turns 55 at the end of December, is head of service for charitable housing company Bolton at Home, itself a busy job.

“I keep thinking I’m getting too old for this,” he laughs. “But I couldn’t stop. As long as I can keep going I’ll be doing theatre.”

Sitting in on the rehearsals of Aladdin tonight is Fran Shinks, a 49-year-old nurse who has appeared on the Little Theatre stage and worked with Cohen. Like many involved in Bolton’s am-dram scene, Shinks flits between different societies in the town, picking up parts or helping backstage. She’s already got Little Shop of Horrors at Farnworth Performing Arts in her diary for 2022, in which she’ll be doing some small roles.

“They call me little-part Fran,” she says because of her ability to be called up at a moment’s notice and learn a few lines for a role in whatever play. Shinks has met her fair share of interesting characters on and off stage.

“There’s one particular director who has this reputation. I won’t name him but he’s had some proper diva strops at me. He’s got no filter and will just say whatever.”

He once shouted at her in a rehearsal for turning round and “swishing her hair” which he said was distracting. “I just take the piss,” she says.

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She shares Cohen’s passion about youth theatre in the town and often helps out with youth theatre shows. “It’s such a good thing to be involved in. You get the nice middle-class kids coming, but you also get a lot of kids who have got quite troubled home lives and it’s an escape for them and a bit of a sanctuary. It gives them so much confidence.”

Star of Aladdin, Haslam, who has a long track record of performing since she first stepped onto the stage aged six, agrees. “It was really important to me when I was at school,” says the 26 year old. “I got really badly bullied and for me it was such an important outlet. It was a place I felt safe, felt accepted. You were never too weird, too fat or too tall there.”

These days her time with the theatre is both a hobby that is “something for me” and something that feeds into her day job as a primary school teacher.

“I definitely use my theatre skills in my job,” she says. “Because you don’t go into school every day feeling like you are in a Disney movie, but you have to act like it! Every lesson is a one woman show.”

Out in the bar area of the Little Theatre is Richard Leigh, artistic director of the Marco Players, another amateur dramatic society in Bolton. He’s just dropping off some props he used in their most recent production, The Vicar of Dibley, which had a sell-out run at the end of November and which Shinks helped on backstage.

Leigh, a dapperly-dressed 57 year old, originally from the Isle of Wight, whose day job is a mortgage adviser, joined Marco in 2014 but has been involved with am-dram since he was “a nipper”, having followed his dad, a teacher and keen actor, on to the stage.

He’s enthusiastic about how local theatres like Marco and the Little Theatre act as gateways for people to get interested in theatre, both as actors and audience. “Some people still think theatre is a middle-class thing that’s not for them and am-dram is a good way in for people to get interested in it,” he says.

But while their doors are open to everyone, Leigh recognises the amateur theatres in Bolton have something of a recruitment problem attracting members from BAME communities.

“We did Of Mice and Men recently and there’s meant to be a black character in that called Crooks and we couldn’t find anyone to play him, so we had to write the character out which was a real shame,” he says.

He was inspired by a recent trip to London where he saw East is East on stage at the National. “I came back thinking I really want to do that in Bolton but then I was like: ‘Will we get Asian actors?’ I don’t know. And the problem is it can be a vicious circle because you only do plays you can cast and then it becomes a self-perpetuating thing.”

Is there still a snobbishness about am-dram and some people looking down their noses at it? “Less so now,” says Leigh, “because it’s moved on massively since the early days of church hall societies, with crap scenery, bad acting and dodgy accents. Over the years you get people who come in and want to raise the standards. There are lots of people who could have been actors involved in it, but life went a different way. It’s a strange thing to do – putting yourself out there, risking make a fool of yourself. It gets the pulse racing and the social aspect is great.”

Back on stage at the rehearsals, there are a couple of dodgy accents among the cheesy jokes and occasionally questionable cultural references in this traditional production of the panto, set in Peking.

The annual panto, which has only been going at the Little Theatre for about six years, is a big money spinner for the venue. Cohen admits that not everyone on the theatre board likes it.

“They don’t see it as theatre,” he says. “But it brings in the money.”

And since Covid, money is exactly what is needed. While Bolton’s professional theatre, the Octagon, received some government support during the lockdowns, the Little Theatre got not much more than a rate rebate and other societies like Marco received nothing at all. Ticket sales are the bread and butter of all the different groups so it was a worrying time. Thankfully the Little Theatre had some money set aside and was even able to undergo a makeover while in lockdown. But everyone agrees that what the various societies really need is more recognition and support from the local council.

Dame Widow Twankey, played by Peter Haslam, father to Jess, has now appeared on stage in a yellow dress that looks like it’ll combust if it gets too near a naked flame. The 55 year old has played the dame many times in the past and loves it.

“My nan had two sisters and when I was a kid and we had family dos they would all sit together. They all worked in the mills, and they used to sit there with handbags on the knees and chat away and I used to sit with them and start doing the Les Dawson Cissie and Ada bit with them and they used to laugh so much. That’s what gave me the impetus to do the dame.”

Theatre has helped Peter Haslam, just like it helped his daughter. First married at 19, he went through a devasting divorce at 26 and found that the theatre was a massive lift during that time.

“I’d lost one family but I was welcomed back into a different family,” he says. And like his daughter, he employs his acting in his day job as a sales rep for the bakery Greenhalgh’s.

“If I can make somebody laugh, I’ve done my job,” he says. “There’s nothing like performing to a live audience. Everybody needs that, everybody needs that laugh, that happiness. I get a buzz from it.”

Is he “off book” yet? “Sort of. I have a knack of forgetting the odd line, but I’ve been doing it long enough to just stop and make a joke out of it and make myself look stupid.” He admits to winding his daughter up.

“She knows by that glint in my eye that I’ve either forgot a line or I’m playing up. She knows how to handle it. She’s an incredible, talented girl.”

And like Shinks, Peter Haslam confesses that he’s met some characters along the way during his time in am-dram.

“Oh, I’ve met some people all right,” he says. “Some you don’t want to! People who take it overly seriously and think they’re in the Royal Shakespeare Company or something. You have to say to them: ‘Excuse me – this is a hobby!’ And what a brilliant one it is.”

Photos: Rebecca Lupton

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