Pantaloons are a good outside bet

The Pantaloons: Grimm Fairy Tales featuring Damian Cooper and Lucy Mellors.
The Pantaloons: Grimm Fairy Tales featuring Damian Cooper and Lucy Mellors.
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WE may be set for the worse summer since the word summer was invented but the show must go on for the UK’s intrepid outdoor theatre groups.

As their name might suggest, The Pantaloons are not the kind of acting company to be put off by things like driving rain, gales and unseasonal chills.

“It’s been a bit miserable so far this summer,” concurs David Alwyn ahead of tonight’s return to Sheffield’s Botanical Gardens with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest, with Grimm Fairy Tales following tomorrow.

“Nothing can put off the British public, weatherwise. There’s a great sense of camaraderie comes about when the weather turns. No-one ever wants us to stop. And we rarely do, unless it looks like the set’s going to float away.”

Touch wood – and stage curtain – so far that hasn’t happened. But as any actor who has tangled with al fresco productions will confirm, just about anything can happen when you are exposed to the often-not-so-great outdoors.

Then The Pantaloons have become a popular force in the touring open-air theatre market for being that little bit different, renegade even, and so maybe able to cope with challenging circumstances a little easier.

The company has been going for eight years now, mainly doing Shakespeare.

David joined up last year for The Canterbury Tales, which was the group’s first foray away from the Bard, and it was a perfect fit.

“There’s an anarchic energy that comes with a Pantaloon show. I think the way we approach our material is a tightrope walk between sending it up and being respectful to the source.

“We come at the ludicrous with an academic eye... then put on a silly beard and make faces.”

And that’s where they score highly with younger audience members. If panto is a first theatre experience for kids then The Pantaloons may well be the next step up – or a first taste of outdoor theatre at the very least.

From a personal development stance, and in terms of keeping theatre alive and well in the UK, David can appreciate how vital that early/shared theatre experience for kids and parents can be.

“It’s so important. I was lucky to be exposed to quite a lot of different performances when I was young. My parents, mum particularly, were very into the theatre.

“I think the outdoor setting is a great place for people who aren’t used to theatre, whatever their age, to get their stories told to them.

“Something about not locking people in a dark room and pointing the lights at what they should be looking at makes people feel more relaxed, I think. It’s a great way to ease people into theatre without them feeling like they can’t stretch out and have a bottle of wine, roll about on the floor or whatever.”

And that sense of abandon extends to those you’ll be watching on the stage tonight and tomorrow. David admits they sometimes have to reign in the ideas. “More often than we let them run free,” he nods. “We’re a very enthusiastic bunch and because of that we’re constantly trying out this idea or that.

“We make sure we try everything before we shoot it down. Some of my favourite stuff in the shows I hated as an idea. It’s nice to be proved wrong.”

n Tickets for the shows are priced £8-£12.50 via 01799 528406 and www.thepantaloons.co.uk

VARYING degrees of lunacy have unfolded when The Pantaloons have ventured into these parts before now.

There’s something about the ordered nature of the Botanical Gardens being at odds with the ordered chaos happening on the stage that has landed amid the pampered grounds.

Adaptions of the darkly magical Grimm Fairy Tales and The Importance Of Being Earnest sends The Pantaloons back for their fifth annual visit.

Usually fast-paced, physical and funny productions, their knack for ambitious and hilarious performances soon gained fans in South Yorkshire.

“Well they keep having us back, so I hope so,” says David Alwyn. “Sheffield has been very good to us – great crowds. I’m looking forward to going back.

“My mum went to Sheffield University so a lot of her friends still live around the area. It’s always pleasing to see familiar faces.”

The first of the two shows takes place tonight. Tomorrow you get The Grimm Fairy Tales which remain dark stories but are given a fun make-over as the frog prince is thrown against a wall, the ugly sisters’ eyes are pecked out by a vengeful wishing-bird and witches come to very grisly ends.

Needless to say, a lot of brainstorming goes into shaping these age-old works into such fresh form.

“The writing process for Grimm went back a long way,” says David Alway. “We all read the tales and picked our favourites, which ones we might want to perform.

“Then we picked out the ones we wanted to write, then stirred them all up in a big pot with the framing device of the real live – or long dead – Brothers Grimm and Sisters Wilde.

“Earnest was a much slimmer undertaking because it’s already written so perfectly for the stage. We just put our stamp on it.

“Why these shows? We’re all in love with great stories.

“Our shows are a celebration of that really. It doesn’t matter where they come from as long as they light that fire of imagination.

“We pick things because we think we can tell them well, and differently, to how they have been told before.

“With Grimm we’ve tried to highlight some of the lesser known stories that kids don’t get taught in Ladybird books.”

Wilde’s classic comedy of manners has lines just as funny as when first performed in 1895. Under the auspices of The Pantaloons, the tale of love, deception and cucumber sandwiches gains contemporary twists and audience interaction.

Grimm Fairy Tales is a multi-charactered piece, similar in spirit to The Canterbury Tales.

David’s main character is Wilhelm Grimm, who he describes as “a bit of a nerd” before adding: “It’s a nice contrast to Algernon in Earnest. He’s a big foppish puppydog.”

And if a previous show location is anything to go by, The Pantaloons cast will be on alert for any real wildlife assistance.

“As far as animals go, there was a pigeon in London that turned out to be very funny. I think he may have a career.”