OK readers, I have a confession to make...
It’s something I hadn’t wanted to share quite so soon into joining the team here at The Gazette, but it looks like the game is up.
Being a journalist is not my dream career.
I’m going to hold my jazz hands up and confess: My name is Anna, and I want to be a musical theatre actress.
The smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd, standing ovations night after night – that’s what I dream of.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but most of my life – away from the office, and as far back as the classroom – has been dedicated to my love of the theatre,
So imagine my glee, in week two of my new job, at being tasked with attending a dance class with the cast of Mamma Mia!
At last, the thousands of pounds my parents spent on teenage dance and singing classes weren’t wasted.
The years I’ve spent hoofing the chorus line with amateur theatre companies have not been in vain.
Yes, I was slightly terrified – not to mention over excited – at the prospect – throwing my best shapes on stage with professionals was a pretty daunting concept. But I put on my best stage smile and was ready to become a Dancing Queen, and to strut my stuff with Junior Gazette reporter Edward Rhodes and Radio Wave presenters Ged Mills and Hayley Kay.
Walking on to the Opera House’s huge stage, we were greeted by the impossibly perky looking cast. Those beaming faces that thousands of theatre-goers have been greeted by since the show opened on June 21 are not put on for effect – the Mamma Mia! team are that cheerful.
And I guess they’ve got very good reason to be so. They are living their dream.
Becoming a musical theatre performer is no mean feat as hundreds apply for the few places available at the top training colleges each year. But that’s no guarantee of success – once graduated, they begin a hard slog of auditions and the fight for a place with a reputable agent. And even if you secure the latter, there’s still no certainty of work.
So, to be part of the International and UK tour cast of one of the world’s most popular shows is pretty much as good as it gets.
The Mamma Mia! cast has been made very welcome by Blackpool audiences, with more than 64,000 tickets booked during the first half of its 12-week run – taking £2m to smash the resort’s box office records.
After warm welcomes and introductions from dance captain and swing Jamie Wilkin and Sarah Wilkie, the rest of the cast were sent off for a break and we were under way.
The stage lights were glaring – bright yellow, like the sun beating down on a Greek island. I kicked off my shoes to help get into character; imagining the set’s flooring was sun-warmed cobbles under my feet.
Looking out into the darkened 3,000-seater auditorium, where a single-figure spattering of spectators had gathered, nerve-induced giggles poured forth as we were told we were learning the finale routine to the show’s title track Mamma Mia.
The seemingly simple instructions of: “Take two steps forward, and three back”, take on a trickier slant.
“So, that’s two steps forward, and how many back?,” someone asks.
Jamie and Sarah show great patience, and we move on. They assure us it took the cast a whole morning to learn the finale routine, trying to put us at ease.
“Pick three poses,” Jamie tells us. And then our inner divas all come out – as the great pop queen Madonna said: “Strike a pose, there’s nothing to it. Vogue!”
Ged goes all Saturday Night Fever, pointing to the sky with a flamboyance which would put John Travolta to shame. While for me, it’s hands on hips with a cheeky grin.
But this is when it got really tough: “Take three steps forward, and two back”, we’re told.
Mind games eh? Sneaky – never mind making Team Gazette, myself and eight-year-old Edward start the next section with our left legs.
More posing ensues, before we’re encouraged to ‘lose control’ – as the famous Abba lyrics instructed, with a few seconds of free style.
My frizzly mop of curls come into play here, and I shake them loose – hopeful that some extreme hairography will impress.
“Let’s try it with music,” that sneaky fella Jamie suggests. And yes, we really do ‘lose control’ – all sense of coordination disappears for a few seconds, but a couple of repeats ‘from the top’ as they say, and we’re getting there. Although it’s clear that Junior Gazette reporter Edward is the star of the show.
As temperatures outside pushed towards 30 degrees, it was all too easy to be transported to the Greek islands while we worked up a sweat and a Brits abroad-style lobster-red glow thanks to our exertions.
While the boys practised their big moment centre stage, Hayley and I bopped at the back.
This song comes in the midst of celebrations, which close the show during its wedding day climax, so it was party time for us, and as nervous laughter and manic grinning was replaced by more relaxed smiles we settled into the groove.
All that is very well and good, when the pianist in the pit is keeping the pace nice and slow and there are only six people on stage.
Then a chatty hubbub starts to come from the wings. The picture perfect ensemble are back and about to join us, meaning there’s an extra 20 people to fear bumping into and to consider as arms flail wildly into positions.
An anxious-looking stage manager asks me to put some shoes on – for fear of my feet being stood on. They’re tiny, it’d take some doing, but I obey – always follow a stage manager’s instructions – and slip on my trainers.
Suddenly, Jamie and Sarah’s attentions are drawn. “Hang on, what’s that?” they ask. “They’re Bloch’s!” [A well-known dancewear brand]. My secret years of training, yearning and dreaming of a life on stage are revealed, and the pressure then mounts, tenfold. The still smiling cast – all long toned, tanned limbs, honed from hour-upon-hour of rehearsal and performance – are perfectly placed and instead of cheesy pointing hit some much more interesting shapes.
They also help and guide us to be in the right place – no doubt in a bid to ensure we don’t injure them... Their acting skills, I’m sure, are covering the fear.
Another couple of times ‘from the top’ and we’re told next time it’s to be ‘full on’ ready to be filmed.
At last, my nerves finally disappear: It’s showtime.
The pianist strikes up the intro at full speed and the cast goes wild, in a very controlled fashion. It’s clear they love what they do, and have formed some close friendships on the road – but they draw us in to be part of that gang.
The performance was a success all round – no missed steps, no black eyes thanks to wayward pointing poses, and no wrong cues for places.
For those 30 seconds, I was a cast member of the show that’s the hottest ticket in town.
Our small, but oh-so appreciative, audience goes wild with applause. It was quite amazing – so goodness knows what the buzz must feel like when roof is raised by a full house of fans!
“You’ve missed your vocation”, one very kind reviewer tells me. While Jamie and Sarah praise our motley crew’s commitment to the class, and say my trainers took my performance from a 10 out of 10 to a 12 out of 10: Strictly Come Dancing here I come.
And with that, I return to my dreams of a life on stage.
Mamma Mia’s Kids Week
The dance class enjoyed by Anna, Edward, Hayley and Ged was a taster of what theatre-goers can take part in next week as part of Mamma Mia!’s Kids Week.
Extra matinee performances are running next Tuesday to Thursday, August 5 to 7. One free child ticket will be available with each full price adult ticket purchased, with additional children’s tickets costing £17.50.
As a special treat for show fans, anyone attending these performances can book to join in a class at 10am in the Winter Gardens’ Floral Hall on Tuesday, August 5.
Winter Gardens managing director Michael Williams said: “Many Kids Weeks are just about offering a ticket deal but we thought it would be extra fun to give people the chance to learn from the professionals and take part in a dance class.”
Call 0844 856 1111 to book.