The other Wimbledon, where Widow Twanky holds court
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.