It’s panto wars! Bridgetown and Willows schools wage battle of wits

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The contenders in the first Stratford school panto wars are Richard Sandle-Keynes, below, of The Willows and Richard Milward of Bridgetown School. Photo: Mark Williamson (W3/1/17/15)

EXPECT rapid pun-fire and gag explosions as two local schools go to ‘panto war’ in the coming weeks — all in good sport of course.

Bridgetown Primary will be putting on Cinderella from 3rd to 4th February, while The Willows is performing Aladdin from 17th to 19th February.

Richard Sandle-Keynes is directing Aladdin, which he has adapted, while Richard Milward takes the reins of Cinderella, for which he has written an original script. He is also playing one of the Ugly Sisters, Moanella.

The ‘two Dicks’ are old panto pals and decided a friendly wager was in order. Richard M, who is the site manager at Bridgetown, explains how he hoped to copy the example of the legendary Willows pantos by starting a new tradition at Bridgetown. He tells Herald arts: “Aladdin is The Willows’ 41st panto. Peter Butler, panto director, writer and much-loved teacher at the school for many years, has now retired. He originally wrote seven original panto scripts which ran in cycles; the idea being no child would then see the same show twice in their time at school.”

He continues: “I have helped out backstage at The Willows panto, and my wife, Jo Milward, a teacher at the school, has performed many times. We were joking around about who would be the Dame this year, now the original Dame, Steve Harris, has also laid down his wig, and it occurred to me that the best thing about school panto for the kids is seeing people they know on stage being silly, and The Willows’ kids don’t really know me, but Bridgetown kids do…

“So Pete’s legacy has inspired me to put on Cinderella at Bridgetown — after all, traditions have to start somewhere.”

Amazingly both Richards have impressive creative backgrounds. Richard M worked in film and television, and came to Stratford to work at Ragdoll on the children’s TV show Tronji. He opted for a career change, and as well as working at Bridgetown (“I love working at the school”, he says) he runs a dog walking business and is studying for a degree.

Meanwhile, Richard S-K was a professional actor before retraining as a teacher, and has been at The Willows for five years — and in a seemingly wonderful twist of fate he finds himself directing a show that inspired his acting career in the first place. The year six teacher explains: “About 25 to 30 years ago my mother used to bring me to The Willows panto as she had a colleague (Pete Cubitt, who played Long John Silver last year) in the show. I loved it and looked forward to it every year; it was one of the things that encouraged my love of theatre and led to me becoming an actor.

“When I came to The Willows, I was obviously keen to get involved with the panto and delighted in my three years as actor (as a lion, a spoilt prince and a conman-pirate).”

He adds: “After Pete Butler’s final show last year, he asked me to carry on the tradition, which I accepted with honour. He gave me the script for Aladdin, which was the next in the seven-show cycle, with his blessing to adapt and update it. I hope that I have hit a balance between carrying on a long and valued tradition, and adding some bells and whistles of my own.”

Taking up the story behind the wager, Richard S-K explains: “I had hoped to recruit Richard to help with my own panto, so I was gutted when he decided to set up a rival show. When he suggested a bet over who could come up with the funniest panto gag, I was very keen to take him up and let him see what he was missing by being such a terrible turncoat. Former Dame, Steve Harris, will be judging our wager.”

A confident Richard S-K predicted he would win the ‘best gag’ honour: “Having acted and socialised with Steve for the last few years, I think I have a fairly good idea of his humour level. Let’s just say that Mr Milward might have a good pun or innuendo, but mine’s considerably bigger than his.”

Continuing the banter, he says: “By all means, I encourage people to warm themselves up on Bridgetown’s effort but if you want a proper climax to the panto season, come and see what The Willows has to offer.”

Richard M feels assured he has the upper hand on funny lines, he boasts: “As far as the wager goes, in terms of his acting career Rich S-K may have the length, but Cinderella has a fine pair — the ugly sisters, Moanella and Groanella, providing double the gags for your money. They are man-mad, and will stop at nothing to Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! that Prince Charming!”

He finishes: “I may be the new Dick on the block, but I’m confident our marvellous cast of parents, staff and children will provide a great evening’s entertainment to rival The Willows’ impressive run — and deliver the killer gag.”

The results of the ‘panto wars’ wager will be revealed in the Herald at the end of February — so keep reading!

WHERE AND WHEN: Cinderella is on at Bridgetown Primary, Stratford, on Friday, 3rd February, at 7pm, and Saturday, 4th February, at 2pm and 7pm. For tickets call 01789 205092. Aladdin is on at The Willows, Stratford, on Friday, 17th, and Saturday, 18th February, at 7pm; Saturday, 18th February at 3pm; and Sunday, 19th February at 4pm, tickets at www.ticketsource.co.uk/willowsfriends