The other Wim­ble­don, where Widow Twanky holds court

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - ANN REN­NIE

TWENTY years ago, my part-time job, af­ter sell­ing kitchens all day, was as a pi­nafore-wear­ing ush­erette at Eng­land’s Wim­ble­don The­atre.

This large red-brick build­ing, where the first show was Jack and Jill in 1910, crowned Wim­ble­don Broad­way. A rather faded and gen­teel old dame, its glory days had been shared with Gra­cie Fields and Noel Coward and in the 1960s there was a brief golden mo­ment when the world pre­miere of Oliver played for two weeks be­fore trans­fer­ring to Lon­don’s West End. In that cast was a young Barry Humphries.

Dur­ing the Christ­mas pan­tomime sea­son, Wim­ble­don The­atre was a haven of fes­tiv­i­ties as hordes of vil­lainspot­ting chil­dren chanted in fevered uni­son, ‘‘ Look be­hind you!’’

Dur­ing in­ter­mis­sion, I sold vanilla, straw­berry and choco­late ice-cream tubs to the Priscil­las and Jere­mys of salu­bri­ous SW19. My job was to shine a torch in the dark for late­com­ers and clean be­tween the rows of faded plush Circle seats. The boxes held a bet­ter class of mess, such as Fer­rero Rocher wrap­pers ca­su­ally dis­carded by those who looked down their noses (lit­er­ally, if not metaphor­i­cally) on those in the stalls and pitied the pau­pers up in the gods.

I loved work­ing at the the­atre and dreamed of be­ing no­ticed. I once gave a tape of torch songs I had recorded to a mu­si­cal di­rec­tor who was ru­moured to be on his way up, but I ex­pect he was just be­ing kind in tak­ing it off my hands. So be­ing an ush­erette was the acme of my the­atri­cal ca­reer on the Lon­don stage.

The shows we got var­ied in qual­ity and run. We’d get try- outs and reper­tory shows and drama-school show­cases. We’d have ac­tors on the slide and stars in the mak­ing, one-hit won­ders and en­er­getic en­sem­bles, crude comics and fam­ily-friendly en­ter­tain­ers such as Cilla Black as Aladdin and Sha Na Na as old rock­ers.

Back in the early ’90s, the pan­tos were the big an­nual fix­ture, a tradition of gar­ish en­ter­tain­ment long em­bed­ded in the English psy­che. John Net­tles (just be­fore his role as DCI Tom Barn­aby in Mid­somer Mur­ders) was a sin­is­ter King Rat. Danny La Rue was a won­der­ful Widow Twanky, both sta­ple char­ac­ters in this vaudeville of quips and sight gags and gen­der-bend­ing. But the the­atre’s long run was al­most over when in­vestors stepped in to save it from de­vel­op­ment in the late ’90s.

To­day, its star shines brightly as the home of Lon­don pan­tomime. Last De­cem­ber, I was in Wim­ble­don vis­it­ing old haunts and I popped in to see the re­vamped old girl, won­der­ing whether any of those I had worked and laughed and drank with 20 years ago would still be there. At the box of­fice I asked if Keith was in, and two min­utes later he emerged, same smile, same ‘‘Souf’’ Lon­don cheek, happy to show me around the re­named New Wim­ble­don The­atre. I got to stand on the stage and imag­ined the chat and clam­our of first-night au­di­ences and re­alised that the front row was scar­ily close and that the or­ches­tra pit was quite roomy.

The sea­son was just about to start — a reprise of Dick Whit­ting­ton — and the great­est dame of all was set to star. Dame Edna Ever­age, that is, for­merly of Moonee Ponds, Mel­bourne, was about to ter­rify late­com­ers and those cling­ing on be­hind an iron- lace balustrade in the cheap seats.

Never mind the tennis at Wim­ble­don: the real ac­tion is on this other Broad­way where an­other gen­er­a­tion of happy hol­i­day­ing kids taunt un­sus­pect­ing ush­erettes and cry ‘‘Oh, yes, he is!’’ as the panto vil­lain struts and frets his hour upon the stage.

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