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Christmas panto brings our community together
AMATEUR actors staged a Christmas pantomime that helped to bring their local community together.
Around 50 actors and backstage crew from the Leigh Park and Warren Park Community Players performed 'Jack and the Beanstalk' four times over one weekend in St Clare's Church, Warren Park.
Around 400 people came to see the show, which included the singing, dancing and audience participation typical of a traditional pantomime. It's just the latest in a series of drama productions hosted by the church that have fostered real community spirit.
For Clare Simmons, who played postmistress Sally Stamp, it was a joy to be involved this year. She was due to act in last year's production, but had a stroke a few weeks beforehand. And she was really pleased to be involved alongside three of her children - Paige, aged 23, who played Fairy Hedgerow, Theo, aged 17, who played Quill, the Baron's Secretary, and Axel, also 17, who helped backstage.
"I hadn't been in the pantomime before, but my children have been in it for the past four years," she said. "I was given a part last year, but in October 2021 I had a stroke. It meant it was too difficult for me to work, and this year the other members of the panto team had to look out for me. I was a bit concerned about two performances in one day, but I made sure I sat down when I came off stage.
"But I'm so glad that I did it, as I had the most fun ever. I met amazing people and made friends for life. It was also great to be doing something with the children. Paige doesn't tend to leave the house without me, but she has always felt comfortable with the panto team. Knowing that she feels safe with them has been a massive thing for me.
"The whole experience, including all the rehearsals, has been a real joy. I'd recommend it to anyone, and it's a great way of meeting people. I know each performance was sold out, and it's great we can offer this kind of experience for some people who can't get to a traditional pantomime for financial reasons.
"My other son, Tyler, who used to do backstage at the pantomime, has now gone to university and is working in a West End theatre. So the pantos here gave him real-life experience of working on a show."
The pantomime was written and directed by Carolyn Owens. Her husband, the Rev Jonathan Jeffery - the vicar of Leigh Park and Warren Park - played the traditional role of pantomime dame Betsy Bumble. And their daughter, Phoebe, played the role of Jack, who exchanges the family cow for some magic beans which grow overnight into a beanstalk. The team had been rehearsing from September ahead of their performances at the start of December.
This year's pantomime was performed in memory of two members of the group who had sadly died since the previous production. One was Margaret Connolly, from St Edmund's RC Church, Waterlooville, had previously appeared in 'Cinderella' and 'Dick Whittington', and was also a stalwart of Havant Passion Play productions. The other was Jan Horn, who joined the panto team when her granddaughter Amy wanted to take part. Jan had volunteered to bring Amy along to rehearsals and ended up as one of the cast. Amy was Fairy Barleymow in this year's production.
Another new cast member this year was the Rev Phill Vickery, a Baptist minister who is involved in a Fresh Expression of church - the Warren Park Cafe Church.
He said: "I watched it last time and thought it was good. My wife Maggie was Maggie Mop, so it was good to do it together. We wanted to be involved because we work in the community, and we got to know lots of people.
"I think Warren Park has a great community cohesion, but there's not many community activities apart from the church. I've been working alongside Jonathan to campaign on the community's behalf. The panto shows that it's just like a family here."
Phill also plans to be involved in a staging of the Nativity story at St Francis Church, Warren Park, on Christmas Eve.