How Abbey’s ‘ginger ninja’ is doing us proud in panto land

Had it not been for the fact that Aylesbury has a new theatre I doubt I’d ever have visited the county town of Buckinghamshire.

But that’s where a certain Pete Conway and I headed down to in order to watch the pantomime we had appeared in up Hanley a couple of years ago be re-created by virtually the same cast.

The Aylesbury Waterside Theatre is a modern architectural wonder – all wood panelling, slate floors and sumptuous seating.

Granted, it’s not The Regent, but I can think of worse places to spend an evening.

Four seats to the right of me was actor Warwick Davis of Star Wars and Willow fame.

Three seats to the left of me was the national treasure that is David Jason. I brought him some popcorn to say thank you purely for the ‘Play it cool, Trig, play it cool’ scene in Only Fools And Horses.

But it wasn’t these showbiz luminaries I’d gone to see – it was my mate Wilkesy and the cast of Dick Whittington.

It’s basically Stoke’s patented panto on tour – the same lead (our Jonny), the same dame (Christian Patterson), the same villain (Steve Serlin) and many members of the original ensemble.

The show was great – even without my now legendarily-rubbish dancing – and although Jonny was missing his partisan Stokie crowd the ‘Ay up me ducks’ went down a treat.

Pete and I could still remember our lines off-by-heart and even though we saw the jokes coming a mile off they still cracked us up.

But the highlight of the night for me was seeing another local lad do his thing in front of hundreds of people.

Aaron Corden and his cousin Andrew, from Abbey Hulton, were runners-up in the Stoke’s Top Talent contest at The Regent in September 2009.

Both had applied to attend vocational courses at Stoke-on-Trent College until Phil ‘The Power’’ Taylor and Potteries businessman Will Bark stepped in and agreed to fund courses for them at the prestigious Bodywork Company Dance Studios.

Since then the lads have repaid this generosity by knuckling down and chasing their dreams hard.

Take Aaron, for example. In the last two years he has been a backing dancer for none other than Take That and the Black Eyed Peas.

Last year he was named best student and won a scholarship at Bodywork which meant that his course fees were paid for. Now the ‘ginger ninja’, as I like to call him, is one of the ensemble dancers in Dick Whittington – with a very proud Jonny Wilkes looking on.

Even to my untrained eye two years ago, it was obvious Aaron was a bit special – combining astonishing athletic ability with an admirable work ethic.

Unfortunately, having landed a role in Dick Whittington at The Regent, he broke his leg very early in the run and then had to watch from the sidelines as we all had a ball and yours truly made a fool of himself.

During panto rehearsals at The Regent I remember sitting in the auditorium talking to Aaron and being blown away by his enthusiasm and how grateful he was for the opportunity to be on stage.
On the X-Factor it is a pre-requisite that everyone has to say the dream of becoming an entertainer means the world to them.

Aaron Corden is someone who not only talks this talk – he walks the walk too.

Let’s not forget that he and his cousin Andrew were completely self-taught – learning dance routines and moves by watching videos of artists like Michael Jackson on the internet.

Now, with just a year of his college course to go, Aaron is hot property and has more than earned his role in the Aylesbury re-run of the panto he missed out on.

He’s a break-dancing rat, a shark in the ultra-violet scene and does all sorts of other bits ’n bobs during the show which require him to do quick costume changes.

According to a fellow dancer in the panto Aaron is the best student in his year and, such is his prowess, I’m sure the theatre-goers of Aylesbury just assume he’s been doing what he does for ages.

It makes me incredibly proud to see a young lad from Stoke-on-Trent using his God-given talent to give our Jonny a run for his money by brightening up the festive season for so many people.
There are, of course, no guarantees in an industry where even established names often live a hand-to-mouth existence.

But if natural ability, hard work and application are anything to go by then this 19-year-old from the Abbey has a very bright future ahead of him in musical theatre.

Happy Christmas, Aaron: This one’s for you, mate.

Read my Personally Speaking columns every Tuesday in The Sentinel

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Why panto will always have a special place in my heart

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

Yours truly with panto dame Christian Patterson.

By the time this year’s panto finishes, I will have performed in front of more than 25,000 people.

That figure includes family, friends and colleagues who all came to see me dressed up as an old duffer – wearing make-up, singing, dancing (after a fashion) and making a fool of myself.

I have suffered for my art. No, honestly I have. I mean, you wouldn’t grow a beard like this under normal circumstances. Would you?

Having lived in this strange panto cocoon for seven weeks now and with 22 shows under my belt, I finally feel able to comment properly on the alien world that this cynical old hack has been inhabiting.

I’ve always been the outsider here. That’s no-one’s fault – it’s simply a fact that when the curtain comes down for the final time on Sunday night yours truly will return to The Sentinel HQ all suited and booted, while the rest of the cast will move on to their next show.

I know I’ll be sad to leave, The Regent’s become like a second home to me.

I’ll miss Caroline’s voice over the Tannoy summoning us to vocal warm-up, or announcing: “Ladies and gentlemen of the company – this is your Act One beginners’ call, your Act One beginners’ call, please.”

I’ll miss the adrenalin rush that hits you the moment you walk out on stage for the first time and the sense of relief when your first gag gets a laugh.

I’ll miss the camaraderie of people like Jonny Wilkes, our ever-popular dame Christian Patterson, Steve Serlin and director Matt Salisbury who have taken me under their wings and shown me genuine kindness and boundless patience.

I’ll miss the wonderful staff at The Regent who have always made me feel so welcome, despite the fact they have proper stars to look after.

But, most of all, I will miss the incredible warmth of Potteries audiences, who make The Regent pantomime the runaway success it is.

I don’t mind telling you it’s bloody hard work.

There were times when I doubted I could do it as I tried to juggle the panto role, my day job and family commitments.

I remember, on the morning of my second show, literally clinging on to the set for grim death before my entrance – much like a drowning man might cling to a barrel thrown overboard as his ship capsized.

I can look back and laugh, because walking on stage is like falling off a log to me now.

The hard part is making each show feel as fresh and vibrant as the first, even though you may have used the same lines, gestures and facial expressions two dozen times.

I guess that’s what makes people like Wilkesy and our dame so good and why they put bums on seats in the Cultural Quarter.

You see, this isn’t Milton Keynes or Wimbledon.

Stoke-on-Trent is a city with a very strong sense of place and identity.

That being the case, you can keep your foreign celebrities and soap stars for the lead roles. What we have here in North Staffordshire every Christmas is a dynamic that so obviously works.

So why would you want to fix something that’s not broken?

Why would you want to lose the strong local flavour running through a show like The Regent panto, or swap your main men for outsiders who will take the money and go through the motions?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not always plain sailing back stage.

I remember one night approaching Christian’s dressing room and hearing him and Jonny going at it hammer and tongues.

It transpired they were actually arguing about lines in the show and it was a row that was over as quickly as it had begun.

The fact is they care passionately about delivering the very best shows they can and that filters down to the rest of us.

Make no bones about it, being away from your family is the hardest part of being involved in a show like this.

Christmas was a blur.

I feel like it passed me by. I mean, I haven’t even seen the face of the new Doctor Who yet.

But, even if I never tread the boards again, I can always say I’ve been there and done it.

I have some wonderful memories and I hope I held my own up there.

One thing’s for sure, one look at the audiences who forgot their troubles with us for just a few hours knocks on the head any notion that theatres are elitist.

Young or old, rich or poor, pantomime has the ability to connect with everyone on so many levels and it will always have a special place in my heart.