With less than an hour until the curtain rises, the Ugly Sisters are strapping on their corsets and combing their sky-high wigs. Maybe tonight will be the night one of them finally fits into that glass slipper.
While the biggest cheers are reserved for panto star Billy Pearce, outrageous dames Nicole and Tulisa, alias actors Brian Godfrey and Ben Stock, are happy to get the boos. It makes the layers of grotesque make-up and the endless costume changes – their outfits include a Cruella de Ville-style fur suit, with toy puppies spilling out of a hat, and shimmering chandelier party frocks – all worthwhile.
The panto, Cinderella, is thrilling audiences with spectacular special effects, including a flying motorbike and a hideous giant spider. It takes just a split second for Cinders to be transformed from a girl in rags to a party queen in a glamorous ballgown, before she’s whisked away in a carriage pulled by adorable Shetland ponies.
The special effects were created by The Twins – Gary and Paul Hardy-Brown – who are world leaders in large-scale special effect production. They created a giant fire-breathing dragon for the 2011/12 panto, Robin Hood.
There’s plenty of slapstick in the show too, courtesy of Billy and co-stars Brendan Sheerin, presenter of Channel 4’s Coach Trip, who plays Baron Hardup, and actress Lynda Bellingham, who arrives on stage as the Fairy Godmother sitting in a sparkling cresent moon.
The cast also includes Afnan Iftikhar, one of the top 10 contestants on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Superstar TV programme, as Dandini, Hannah Grover as Cinders and Christopher Drake as Prince Charming.
With four more weeks to go, Cinderella is pulling in huge audiences – and tickets are already selling like hot cakes for next year’s panto, Aladdin.
Adam Renton, Bradford Theatres general manager said: “Cinderella has been phenomenal; we are tracking ahead with sales compared with this time last year. Over 76,000 people have seen the show so far and we still have another four weeks to go, with excellent availability on some performances. It’s really quite incredible that so many people have experienced this magical show.
“We are now on sale with our next panto, Aladdin, which is already doing great business. It’s testament to the quality of pantomimes at the Alhambra theatre that people maintain the tradition of coming back year after year to see what we have to offer, booking early to get the best seats.”
While the audience settles into their seats, a backstage army is busy making sure that all runs smoothly, from plugging in the lighting to wheeling on the sets.
The set, costumes, sound and lights for Cinderella were brought to the theatre in a total of six 40ft lorries. The special panto stage floor is made up of 120 wood floor sheets, each measuring 8ft by 4ft, and a total of 720 screws have been used to hold the floor down onto the Alhambra stage.
There are 18 members of the backstage crew needed to run each performance. A total of 973 man hours went into the preparation week, before the opening night, to build the set and rig the electrics, with 344 plugs and just over 4.5 kilometres of cable used for all the lighting in the show.
There are 23 pyrotechnics – special on-stage fireworks – used during each show, coming to a total of 1,771 fired for the entire run of the panto, and 13 gallons of smoke fluid are used for the dry ice effects during the seven-week run. There are several hundred costumes, and the wardrobe crew are busy carrying out repairs and maintenance on a daily basis.
The Alhambra panto wouldn’t be complete without the Sunbeams – the troupe of child dancers who have been lighting up the stage for nearly a century.
Today’s Sunbeams, from the Sara Packham School of Dance in Oxenhope and Keighley, are split into teams of girls and boys taking it in turns to appear on stage. But when the Sunbeams were founded back in 1917, by theatre impressario Francis Laidler, they were all girls, required for every performance.
Laidler, who had the Alhambra built in 1914, first introduced the Sunbeams at the Prince’s Theatre, Little Horton Lane, where he was the manager. In 1917 they appeared in his Alhambra panto Robin Hood, creating “a ray of sunshine to the darkness of the war years.”
Laidler ran a tight ship, insisting that his Sunbeams were in good health, with six months regular school attendance. They had to be between 4ft 4in and 4ft 6in tall and had their hair cut into matching bobs. Any girl with long hair had to sacrifice it for the privilege of being a Sunbeam – but after queuing around the block for hours then undergoing a gruelling audition for Mr Laidler, it was no doubt worth it.
The youngsters were given two shillings and those who lived too far to go home stayed in digs supervised by a ‘house-mother’.
All recruited locally, the little girls were popular with Alhambra audiences, adding high spirits to the pantos and often joining in with comic stunts on stage.
Former Sunbeams continue to meet up for reunions today. Many became professional dancers, and there are Sunbeams living all over the world.
Cinderella runs until February 3. Tickets are on (01274) 432000.