The Student Years (2004-2007)
The Pantaloons originally formed at the University of Kent in 2004 to stage an all-male outdoor production of William Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Steve Purcell, a young and roguishly handsome MA student with a passion for Shakespeare and a flair for comedy, decided to direct and produce the play as a kind of companion piece to his masters degree. In the long hot summer of 2004 Steve would regularly disappear into the woods with eight other men, some dressed as girls, to rehearse the play in secret.
Disturbed only by the occasional dog-walker, the merry crew beavered away in the bushes all summer on the commedia dell’arte inspired piece, which featured white make-up, dirty overalls, grotesque masks, music and silly walks. Everything was coming along nicely but there was still one thing missing. The company needed a name.
“We need a name,” said Steve one rehearsal. “What do you guys think?” Nine blank faces stared back at Steve. Tumbleweed blew across the clearing. A squirrel fell dead from a nearby tree. “Something from the text maybe?” Still no reaction from the assembled actors. “How about the Lean and Slippered Pantaloons, taken from Jacques’ seven ages of man speech?”
There was a vociferous shrug of assent and it was settled. The company was the Lean and Slippered Pantaloons. And they went on and did a great show. It was so well received by the people of Canterbury that there was no question about it – they would stage another production the following year…
Perhaps it was because they named a teddy-bear prop ‘Macbeth’. Perhaps it was because The Winter’s Tale is the most spectacularly unseasonal title for an open-air summer production. Perhaps it was plain old-fashioned bad luck. Whatever the reason, the early stages of the Pantaloons’ second production (and first summer tour) were beset with problems.
The rain poured down on their first run of performances. A missing passport stranded a cast member in Canada only days before their Edinburgh Fringe debut. As a final sting in the tail, the company lost over GBP600 of their meagre resources when Kent-based airline EUjet, with whom they had booked their Edinburgh flights, folded like a decrepit Kentish deckchair.
But if Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale is about anything, it’s about sudden reversals in the face of seemingly-inevitable doom. Jealous tyrants see the error of their ways, and repent. Wronged wives come back from the dead. Abandoned babies escape shipwrecks and hungry bears to be discovered by kindly shepherds. And struggling theatre companies snatch success from the jaws of disaster. (All, right, that last one isn’t actually in Shakespeare’s play…)
The Pantaloons’ pay-what-you-like performances at Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden attracted enormous crowds, beautiful sunshine and glowing reviews. Clowns interacted with the audience. Loveable rogue Autolycus improvised snatches of stand-up, making Murder She Wrote references and referring to a battered copy of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales From Shakespeare. At each performance, the infamous stage direction ‘Exit, pursued by a bear’ was enacted by a member of the audience.
At the end of the show, a statue of the dead Hermione comes miraculously to life. The wise Paulina tells us that in order to believe this magical story of hope and redemption, the audience must join the actors in their make-believe: “It is required you do awake your faith”. With The Winter’s Tale, the Pantaloons learned that their clownish ways could be put to the most profoundly moving dramatic effect.
It was only a matter of time before they tackled Tragedy with a capital T…
If you ask any member of the cast of our 2006 Romeo and Juliet tour what the most memorable performance was they will invariably tell you it was ‘the one with Elton John’. I should point out that Sir Elton did not guest star in the show on any occasion although that would have been, as the kids say, awesome. No, the cast would be referring to a performance in Canterbury that happened to coincide with an Elton John concert on the other side of town. This resulted in the play having a surprise Elton John soundtrack.
There were some brilliant coincidences, not least when Juliet was considering faking her own death to hit song ‘I’m Still Standing’. And, of course, the cast had a field day seamlessly inserting lines like “Are you ready? Are you ready for love, Juliet?” into the iambic pentameter.
All of this isn’t to say that the play was usually anything less than brilliant. For a start it featured Romeo exclaiming “It’s the famous bit!” at the start of the balcony scene, now an official Pantaloons Classic Gag. The Nurse and the Friar provided much comic relief, regularly going off-text; the former to hand out chocolate bars, the latter to take suggestions as to how the play could be brought to a happier ending. Of course, Romeo and Juliet still died at the end **SPOILERS!**
Oops. That should have come before the spoiler, shouldn’t it?
Alongside Romeo and Juliet we also toured Cymbeline, a play so little known that even we have forgotten what it’s about and have to refer to this review of our production by Pete Shaw at the Edinburgh Fringe 2006 for BroadwayBaby.com:
“I can hardly think of any occasion where I have laughed so hard while watching Shakespeare… Cymbeline itself isn’t Shakespeare’s greatest work, but the tremendous treatment given to it by The Pantaloons positively makes it sing…
“If I reveal that part of the story appears as Punch & Judy, and one of the props is a Tigger soft-toy with a pole through its middle, you’ll get a general feel for the style. Any sense of the fourth wall is obliterated as the audience is constantly engaged by the actors in a pacey, contemporary and occasionally improvised view of Shakespeare’s fairy tale.
“….This was like watching Terry Pratchett add footnotes to the Bard’s greatest speeches.”
Midsummer 2007. Rhianna’s ‘Umbrella’ dominated the charts, the rained it rained every day (as forecast by Shakespeare), half of Britain was only accessible by submarine and the other half was overrun by ducks. Luckily The Pantaloons were well prepared for the Wettest Summer Ever as some bright spark suggested that umbrellas could be used to represent trees in our production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In practice they proved just as useful when they were used to represent umbrellas.
But there was much more to the Dream than personal anti-weather devices (this is an umbrella term). The Pantaloons provided extra layers of theatricality by performing the entire play as their “rude mechanical” personas. Which turned the play-within-a-play at the end of the show into a play-within-a-play-within-a-play. And then, after the show was over, the cast apologised to the audience and explained that they had only been pretending to be the mechanicals all along. This of course made everyone realise that the play-within-a-play-within-a-play was actually a play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play.
Confused? So am I. But it all made perfect sense at the time.
Other highlights of the show included an argument about which male member of the cast would have to play Titania, a power ballad entitled “I’m The Biggest Bottom”, the front row of the audience pretending to be scary shrubs and possibly the most ridiculous fight between Lysander and Demetrius ever to disgrace the stage.
Yes, The Pantaloons’ production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was absolutely umbrelliant! Sorry.
However, perhaps the most memorable thing that happened this year is that we held a meeting at which a few members of the group decided to continue The Pantaloons despite not being students anymore and, well, the rest is history!
The Outside Years (2008-2012)
So called because we were still almost exclusively performing outside; and were still trying to get our foot in the door with big venues, indoor theratres and the Arts Council…
For the Pantaloons’ 2008 summer tour, their biggest one yet, the company decided to tackle one of the Bard’s earliest and most controversial comedies, The Taming of the Shrew. It has that classic rom-com storyline: Boy meets girl! Girl physically assaults boy! Boy marries girl for money! Boy psychologically tortures girl! Girl makes a long speech about being subservient to boy! And they live happily ever after.
The comedy of The Taming of the Shrew is very dark indeed. But a bit of Pantaloonification (a process that involves mixing in copious amounts of irony, self-reflexivity and silliness then wrapping the whole thing in vivid primary colours) always helps to brighten things up!
So The Pantaloons took a family-friendly Shrew on the road – to more of the UK than ever before. Perhaps the most exciting new venue on their tour was The Scoop at More London, a concrete amphitheatre located on the south bank of the Thames – only a short walk from the reconstructed Globe where a reconstruction of Shakespeare himself would perform if anyone could reconstruct him. London-bound open-air Shakespeare fans were spoilt for choice, though many were swayed by the fact that The Pantaloons’ performance was completely free-of-charge…
A series of less-than-fortunate events (three blown tyres, two broken guitars, one semi-crushed van, two lost purses, three cyclists invading the stage, etc.) conspired against the plucky cast of five, but nothing could stop the sheer momentum of The Pantaloons’ most critically-acclaimed show yet. It kept on rolling like a fantastically-crafted horse-drawn cart full of props – which, funnily enough, is what the company employed for the very first time this year…
We decided to double-up our Shakespeare for summer 2009, touring productions of Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet. The former was a longer, ticketed show and the latter a one-hour show specially-designed to be performed for free (or donations) in public spaces.
It was in this year that we visited our first National Trust properties which are now a staple of our summer tours. We were starting to get a name for ourselves.
Somehow, over the years, Macbeth has gained a reputation as a cursed play. There are numerous accounts of actors sustaining injuries on stage, scenery falling down, riots breaking out and portals to other dimensions being opened. Actually, that last one might have just been an episode of Doctor Who. Regardless, we at The Pantaloons do not believe in curses. In fact our official postition on all things supernatural is: “Piffle”.
In 2010 we decided to tackle The Scottish Play regardless. And what a tackle it was! There was more than a hint of film noir about the whole thing, from Malcolm as trenchcoated narrator to Banquo’s murder on an expertly mimed steam train (complete with talcum powder steam effects). And there were other surprises along the way. The three witches were puppets that could be scary if they wanted but mostly played it for laughs and somehow the Porter morphed into a recurring character called Aunt Fanny (don’t ask – you should have seen it).
Reviewers loved it, audiences loved it. All in all it was a resounding success and at no point was there the teeniest tiniest hint of any silly “curse”. Okay, so during rehearsals one member of the cast was rushed into hospital for an emergency appendectomy but what of that? Piffle…
We also toured our first production of Much Ado About Nothing in 2010. Far from being a lot of fuss over not-very-much it was actually a riot of Shakespearean hilarity from start to finish with our most cartoony cast of characters yet… There was Zorro-alike Don Pedro swashing his buckle all over the place, a cadre of silly-walking watchmen, man-eating (and mildly manly) maid Margaret and a whole host of others.
We finished the year with a few performances A Christmas Carol including memorable open-air performances at The Scoop, London in the actual snow!
Our first major departure from Shakespeare, 2011 saw us tour The Canterbury Tales; a version we wrote that features (in what we believe is a theatrical first) every single one of Chaucer’s Tales. It was quite an undertaking but a real milestone for us as a company. Before that point we had not written our own adaptations (apart from A Christmas Carol which we toured again in 2011) but now we discovered we could do so to real success. We also managed to attract Arts Council funding for first time, allowing us luxuries like, erm, a set.
We followed up The Canterbury Tales with another compilation show, Grimm Fairy Tales which we toured alongside The Importance of Being Earnest in the summer of 2012. The main thing that we remember from that year is that only one member of cast didn’t succumb to one illness or another (ear infections, tonsilitis; you name it, we caught it) and have to take at least one week off the tour!
Producer Mark Hayward is the usual understudy, being the one person involved in every production. So, when the first member of cast fell ill one morning Mark jumped in his car to cover the role that evening. It was a drive from Essex to Wales, leaving no time for rehearsal; but The Pantaloons thrive on unpreparedness and it was all grand.
But that was only the first bout of cast illness; three more members subsequently had to take a week off each. By the end of the tour, in various appearances, Mark had played 80% of the roles in The Importance of Being Earnest including Lady Bracknell, Jack, Cecily and Gwendolen. Producer Caitlin Storey also appeared as an understudy in Grimm Fairy Tales whilst 8 months pregnant. The show must go on, eh?!
For Christmas we had another little run of A Christmas Carol in non-theatre spaces. Our version is presented by The Pantaloons’ Penny Circus, a rag-tag group of Victorian urchins who get ideas above their station and attempt to tell Dickens’ magical festive fable. Much hilarity ensues.
The Epic Years (2013-2019)
In this period we went epic! They were years of growth for us artistically and in popularity and also the years in which we decided to tackle ever-more-epic and impossible-to-stage titles!
Our open-air adaptation of Sherlock Holmes mashed-up the canon’s best bits with a few surprises in along the way… Including Moriarty’s true identity changing depending on a choice made by the audience earlier in the show.
That summer we also toured a new version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both productions were bolstered by a raft of new additions to The Pantaloons’ acting ensemble following our biggest ever recruitment drive, holding open workshops carefully designed to find natural Pantaloons wherever they may be hiding.
The autumn saw us beginning to extend the reach of our indoor theatre tours with a double-bill of Tales: The Canterbury Tales and Grimm Fairy Tales.
Back in 2013 we launched a survey amongst our loyal audience members to find out what sort of shows they (or you, if you’re one of them) would like us to perform in future. The title that – by a mile – came out on top was The Pantaloons’ History of Britain.
So, we thought, let’s give the people what they want for our summer 2014 tour. Trouble is, all we had was the title. Obviously it was enough to whet the appetites of those who were familiar with our work – but what would The Pantaloons’ retelling of the History of Britain actually involve?
Founding Pantaloons Stephen Purcell and Mark Hayward took the writing duties for this show, each researching different periods of history and attempting to bring different, exciting performance styles to each one. So the show featured the life of Henry VIII re-imagined as a romantic comedy, the Spanish Armada as a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche and the Victorian Era performed as a music hall concert. And, unlike other historical sketch shows, we did not have to stay factually accurate…!
Our other open air show was a particularly magic version of The Tempest. Throughout the play, Shakespeare suggests that theatre itself is a kind of conjuring, and this is a metaphor we threaded through our own production: our Tempest was performed on the set of an old-fashioned travelling magic show, hosted by Ariel, and created from the shared imaginative efforts of actors and audience.
For the autumn we continued with epic works. Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is a masterpiece of storytelling. Its intricate plot, baffling at first, slowly pulls into focus as the connections between its numerous strands become clear. Only our resident genius Stephen Purcell could possibly adapt it for the stage and manage to preserve something of this richness. In our indoor 2014 production we retained the scope and flavour of the book, with its huge range of tones and contrasting worlds. Comedy and tragedy intermingle; subtle psychological portraits share the stage with cartoonish grotesques. It was a landmark show for us, opening the door to how we might approach other novels in future and forging relationships with lots of new indoor theatre venues we would continue to visit for years to come.
For It was only a matter of time before we got around to tackling Austen, so for our big outdoor tour in 2015 we went for her most popular and, arguably, her best novel, Pride and Prejudice. Would it survive the process of Pantaloonification? Would we do it justice? Yeah, it was pretty awesome. Look, we like nothing better than playfully subverting the conventions of theatre. We believe that it breathes new life into literary adaptations that might otherwise become stale. We believe that the added humour helps to heighten the drama where, in comparison, some ‘straight’ adaptations can feel flat. Audiences loved it; we made a lot of new fans with this one.
We also toured Much Ado About Nothing and a brand new adaptation of Treasure Island that summer, the first time we had toured three productions at the same time.
The autumn saw our first ever exclusively indoor Shakespeare tour. Once more we confronted the curse of Macbeth… and didn’t suffer any ill effects. We fully embraced a film noir aesthetic for this one. A play suffused with images of darkness, night and shadows, lends itself perfectly to the iconography of noir, of course! It also allowed us to do what we do best as a company: to be playful. Like the Chorus to Shakespeare’s Henry V, we ask you to become the imaginative co-creators of the play-world, to “piece out our imperfections with your thoughts”. We invite you to become honorary members of the company as you watch our shows: to participate in the story by joining in the game.
Honestly, 2016 was a difficult year for The Pantaloons. We think it might help other creatives and producers to hear this kind of thing; there’s no guarantee of going from success to success…
We did put on brilliant shows. We toured The Importance of Being Earnest and a re-worked The (almost) Complete History of Britain in theatres in the spring and with lots of hard work (we had one brilliant cast doing both shows) the performances were well-recieved and well-attended. But theatre is a fragile industry at the best of times and our top-selling venue of the tour went into administration after our performance and all of the ticket income was lost. We never got paid. We’re lucky that this has only happened three times to us in our career as a touring company. We moved on, swallowed the loss, and looked forward to the summer.
Ah, but summer 2016 was wet. From the end of May to late July we rarely had a dry show. With open-air theatre this can obviously have quite an impact on attendance (and there’s always the risk of having to cancel a performance if it’s really bad). We went epic with our titles again, though! The new title for us was Gulliver’s Travels, which featured puppetry, green-screen special effects and incredibly life-like talking horses (horse-shaped hats and coconut shells for hooves) and we re-visited The Canterbury Tales and Romeo and Juliet. Even with three great shows on the road we just barely recovered from the financial impact of the bad weather at the start of the tour.
We carried on our tour of Romeo and Juliet in theatres in the autumn and also tackled The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in non-theatre spaces. Overall a tricky but prolific year for us!
We performed a trio of sure-fire hits in 2017, taking Pride and Prejudice to theatres in the spring, A Midsummer Night’s Dream to outdoor venues in the summer and reviving A Christmas Carol for the winter.
We also continued to produce a range of side projects alongside our touring productions. We’ve regularly provided bespoke events to heritage properties and other partners and in 2017 we had more than ever, including A Very Victorain Christmas, with numerous Pantaloony characters installed at Tyntesfield in Bristol for the festive period and Blackout Bletchley, an immersive codebreaking event at Bletchley Park.
The chances of successfully staging The War of the Worlds were a million to one, they said. And yet we did it in 2018 with aplomb! Audiences looked on in abject terror as we used musical instruments, puppetry and, um, enthusiasm to recreate deadly heat-rays, giant fighting-machines, squidgy tentacled Martians and interplanetary warfare on an epic scale in our funny yet faithful new adaptation.
Our summer tours were re-visits of The Importance of Being Earnest and As You Like It – which was wildly different from our 2004 performance all those years ago. Perhaps the most memorable moment was a particularly hilarious fight scene in which Charles The Wrestler was played by a fabulously flexible fabric mannequin.
In the winter we did A Christmas Carol for the fifth time because apparently there were still a few venues we hadn’t taken it to… And also we produced a special festive version of Treasure Island for a run at The Gate in Cardiff.
We tackled lots of new titles in 2019. First up was the massive undertaking of The Odyssey. We didn’t quite go as far as adapting it directly from the ancient Greek but we did read plenty of modern and classical English translations as references for our own adaptation in full rhyming verse.
In the summer we followed up The Odyssey the only way that makes sense; with Sense and Sensibility. Our second Austen adaptation was even sillier than our first. She would have liked a good dollop of slapstick comedy being added to her work, right?
For autumn 2019 we extensively toured Othello. While this most unsettling of plays might seem an unlikely one for a company like The Pantaloons to perform, we’re keen to explore the effects of moving between laugh-out-loud comedy and intense tragedy, just as Shakespeare did himself. Taking our cue from the 1962 film All Night Long, we transposed the play to the setting of a twentieth-century jazz club allowing us to include some swinging songs amidst the simmering tension.
For Christmas 2019 we tackled our first ever pantomime, Cinderella. We love pantomime, which is sometimes considered a low form of art. But it really isn’t. Pantomime is a traditional part of a British Christmas, as much as Christmas trees, Christmas cards and Christmas crackers. And, as with panto, all of these traditions (at least in the UK) came from the Victorian era. How can something with such historical provenance be considered lowbrow? A single show containing music, dance, drama, comedy and often puppetry, stand-up, magic and (buzzword alert) immersive elements is actually a rare and precious thing.
Oh, and we did A Christmas Carol again. For THE LAST TIME. We were forced to write our own sequel for 2021 just to be able to move on…!
The Pandemic Years (2020-2022)
“The show must go on, they say. But in March 2020, for the first time in living memory, the show couldn’t go on. Due to the global pandemic The Pantaloons’ spring tour of Bleak House was cancelled less than two weeks into an eight week run. This was the right course of action and the country went into lockdown shortly afterwards, but it left the company – along with the entire theatre industry – in jeopardy.
We immediately launched a fundraiser to produce a radio play of Bleak House to recoup the upfront costs we had lost. This crowd-funding was hugely successful and it is really thanks to the generosity of our backers that The Pantaloons Theatre Company is still standing. We were unsuccessful in our bid for emergency funding from the Arts Council and the proposed government bailout for theatre will be limited to buildings and institutions. It is our fans that will keep us going and for that we thank you all.
Later in lockdown, when it became apparent that it would be a long time before we would be able to perform live again we developed an online version of Sherlock Holmes called Stay Holmes. It used the Zoom video conference call format to enable us to perform a show that was still interactive despite being remote. It was great fun and well received but we still hankered to perform in the flesh once more.
All through the 2020 lockdown we tried to keep as many of our summer venues in our tour calendar as we possibly could so that when the green light was given for outdoor theatre we would still have a tour intact.
Then the announcement came that socially-distanced outdoor theatre would be allowed again from 11 July 2020 and we immediately sprang into action. We did everything we could with limited time, funds and resources to be able to get two live productions, Sherlock Holmes and Twelfth Night safely on the road. Nothing was going to stop us from getting out there and entertaining the country once more.
We performed 70 safely socially-distanced shows that summer, most of which were sold out (at limited capacity, of course!)
Then everything got locked down again! With our new found Zoom production skills we produced an interactive Halloween show – A Spectre Calls – an online version of Cinderella for Christmas and a virtual murder mystery/escape room hybrid called The Crime Machine.
In April, still confined to online performances, we performed our special interactive Zoom production of The (almost) Complete History of Britain. It featured The English Civil War presented as the infamous Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting, Henry VIII’s never-before-seen dating videos, a quiz hosted by John Logie Baird and our favourite ever bit of audience interaction where we made people improvise their own Guy Fawkes costumes out of whatever they could find around the house!
We were thrilled to get three outdoor tours on the road in the summer; Pride and Prejudice, The Tempest and The Wind in the Willows. Kenneth Graham’s classic countryside caper was a brand new title for us to tackle and we did so with original tunes, an epic slapstick battle sequence and a moment where Mr Toad feigns illness so hard that he accidentally poop-poops himself. Because we do high-brow literary adaptations.
In the autumn we toured a new two-hander version of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which featured, for the first time in a Pantaloons production, projection and audio recordings. Well, since doing our online shows we’ve realised that we can integrate some tech into our homespun aesthetic without losing any charm.
We ended the year with a tour of Humbugged: A Christmas Carol 2. An original play by Mark Hayward it saw the return of Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the familiar festive phantoms. In a wild departure from the original, Humbugged is a time-travelling heist adventure that sees Scrooge enlisting the help of the ghosts to liberate orphans from Mrs Rock’s deadly workhouse and to bring down the criminal operation of Mr Hardplace. Hopefully the show will make a return in a future festive period that isn’t ravaged by covid.
Undaunted by the ongoing pandemic that we were certain was going to end any moment now, we took a brand new show out on the road in the spring – our adaptation of Charles Dickens’ coming-of-age chronicle Great Expectations. We also took the show out in the autumn for a second leg.
In the summer we toured productions of The War of the Worlds, Much Ado About Nothing and The Wind in the Willows.