Meet Boudicca - the panto dame
15:00 03 January 2014
At first glance, the Queen of the Iceni tribe isn’t your typical slapstick pantomime dame.
In AD 60, Queen Boudicca led an uprising against the Romans. Her husband Prasutagus had died, leaving his East Anglian territory to the Romans and to his two daughters, hoping to keep all parties happy that they had received part of his kingdom.
When the Romans took over, they looted buildings and enslaved members of the Iceni tribe – Boudicca also claimed that Romans had flogged her and raped her daughters, incurring her rage and causing her to lead a rebellion (others believe the uprising was due to a dispute over a loan).
Other tribes in East Anglia joined with the Iceni to fight the Romans and an army of around 30,000 attacked the Romans. At the time, the Romans were concentrating on defeating the Druids in Anglesey and their army was compromised in the east. The Iceni were able to march to the Roman city of Colchester where they massacred the population of the city before moving on to London, where a further 70,000 were killed.
The Romans returned in force via Chester and Wroxeter and punished Boudicca’s army heavily. The Iceni queen was defeated by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and is said to have committed suicide by poisoning herself after her defeat. Though she ultimately lost her battle, Boudicca is celebrated today as a national hero and symbol of the human desire for freedom and justice.
Fearsome warrior queens tend not to hurl custard pies or burst into comic song, but The Common Lot have re-imagined the reign of one of East Anglia’s most famous daughters and in 2014, Boudicca is not only a great laugh, but also a man.
Preparations have been under way for months to bring Boudicca: The Pantomime to the Norwich Arts Centre on January 14 to 18.
The brainchild of director Simon Floyd, the show will be staged by local collective The Common Lot and boasts a crowd-sourced cast, a talented team of well-known faces behind the scenes, expert costume advice from Norwich Castle Museum and music from a recently-signed artist.
“Boudicca: The Pantomime is all about local people getting together and telling the story of a local legend,” said Simon, who has previously worked on other productions including musical versions of Billy Bluelight and Kett’s Rebellion.
“I’ve wanted to bring Boudicca’s story to the stage for ages, but in a very different way to how it’s ever been done before. It’s such a great tale and we’ve been respectful to the story - shortly before we throw a pie in its face. Basically, we’ve rooted ourselves in history and then gone a bit stupid.”
Simon gathered his own army of actors from the streets of Norfolk after placing rabble-rousing advertisements asking for people keen to take part in a show – previous experience wasn’t necessary: for example, the pantomime will be the first ever time that Boudicca (Obie Butcher) has been on a professional stage.
The production is self-funded, along with a £1,000 grant from Crude Apache Theatre Company, and Simon has called in favours from friends and colleagues who have all given their time and expertise to the show for free.
Ruth Battersby Tooke, senior curator of costumes and textiles from Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, is making the costumes in an authentic style (“they’re based on the kind of dyes the Iceni tribe would have used at the time, mainly blue, but also green and yellow which is great for a Norwich City connection. They’re also a bit ‘90s grunge. Interesting!” said Simon) while Richard Berry, head of international development at Norwich University of the Arts has worked on the sets.
The hugely popular Bo Nanafana Social Club, which hosts elaborate and eclectic club nights in Norwich throughout the year, will be decorating the Art Centre’s bar area in a Roman and Iceni theme while jazz musician Jordan Smart – who plays in local band Mammal Hands - is working on the score.
Additional costume help will come from Charlotte Bird, who was costume supervisor on the West End production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
“I am pretty expert at finding things for free and persuading people to do things for me and we’ve got a team of 50 together despite the fact that not one of us will get a penny!” laughed Simon.
“If we can make a bit of money to put into another production, it would be absolutely brilliant. We’ve already got some ideas in the pipeline and I know that everyone is keen to do more in the future.”
And if the stellar line-up of backstage stars isn’t enough to send you racing to the Arts Centre box office, Nimmo Twins fans will be delighted to hear that both Karl Minns and Owen Evans are involved, the former helping to write gags, the latter helping at rehearsals.
The pair are bringing their Normal for Norfolk show back to the county next summer at Norwich Theatre Royal.
“It was Simon that first gave me an opportunity to write, when I joined Crude Apache in 1994,” said Karl.
“He contacted me in the spring to tell me he and Simon Byford were writing a panto and asked me if I’d like to help out with the comedy. They’d done all the hard working structuring the story, so I went through the script adding gags and local references, suggesting cuts and tweaks and having a crack at a few of the songs. “Simon’s a great arbiter of taste and had to roll his eyes, tut and give a resounding ‘no!’ to some of the gags: it is a family show after all. It took about two months and myself and Simon met up in London to go through it all.
“He’s a real believer in community theatre, so it’s great to see a show in the tradition of Billy Bluelight and Kett’s Rebellion, back on in Norwich. It’s been a fun, sometimes exhausting process, but the script is in great shape.
“It’s a fun, rollicking, irreverent, cheeky look at a Norfolk legend, it’s both accurate and wildly inaccurate: like all good stories should be. There’s custard pies, transvestisism, songs, jokes and violence. So, if you’re from Norfolk, that’s all your basic needs met in one easy-to-watch show. If you’re looking for a fix of local humour before the Nimmos return, this is the show!”
Simon said that the show, which is suitable for all age groups, was full of fun, history and contained everything you’d expect from a pantomime and more – good versus bad, a pantomime horse, plenty of local references, music, a principal boy and girl and a love story.
“It’s 13 years since I was involved in a big show and I really missed it. It’s been fantastic to write with Karl again and to be working with such a wonderful set of enthusiastic people who love what they’re doing,” said Simon, who works for the museum service (“one of my colleagues said to me: ‘I’d have spelled Boudicca with one c, not two”).
“I love the history of panto which really is theatre for the people. I also love theatre that breaks boundaries and encourages the audience to interact and that’s what we hope to do. It’s going to be a huge amount of fun. When Boudicca goes on the rampage, we get kids up from the audience and get them to bash their parents on the head with filled socks…”
Simon hinted that future performances could include The Sheriff of Norwich (about Bryan Gunn), Elizabeth Fry and the Seven Dwarves (“how brilliant would it be to set a pantomime in a prison?!”), the story of Magdalen Street through the ages and the saga of Argyll Street in Norwich.
“We’re full of ideas, but the emphasis is on Boudicca now and we’re determined to put on a really great show that’s every bit as good as much bigger pantomimes,” he said.
“This is theatre about the place where we live. And it’s funny. What more could you ask for?”
Boudicca: The Pantomime is at Norwich Arts Centre from January 14 to 18 at 7.30pm (with a matinee showing at 2.30pm on January 18). Tickets cost £10 (£8 concessions) and are available from www.norwichartscentre.co.uk or by calling the box office 01603 660352.