The curtain rises on Aladdin

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It is five to nine on Monday and most offices would be full of half-asleep employees forming an orderly queue for their morning coffee.

But step through the stage door of the Kings Theatre in Southsea and it is already all systems go onstage as rehearsals begin for Aladdin, this year’s panto.

Kitty Brucknell

Kitty Brucknell

Kiss Me Kate, performed by the Portsmouth Grammar School, finished its run on Saturday night and the technical crew are moving curtains and lights ready for the arrival of the Aladdin set, which has been delayed by traffic, and the first cast read-through, scheduled for 10am.

Technical manager Nick Benjamin is doing laps of the stage organising the team, who are erecting a star cloth at the back.

It is a black sheet filled with LED lights – the perfect starry backdrop to a magic carpet ride.

It is being fixed to a fly, a bar suspended from the rafters of the theatre, known as the grid. This was lowered down earlier by Kate Evans and Mat Eldridge-Smith, stood many metres above our heads.

Suddenly word spreads that the cast have arrived and are collecting in the dress circle bar for a read-through.

They are barely recognisable from the press launch, particularly the two dames.

Christopher Marlowe, aka the Empress of China, is sporting the natural look, dressed in jeans and a zip-up fleece and Widow Twankey Phil Randall is similarly without make-up or costume.

X Factor finalist Kitty Brucknell (Princess Yasmin) and director Simon Barry are yet to arrive, so the cast continue to get to know each other.

Antony Costa (Aladdin) is sat on the bar next to Hollyoaks’ Marcus Patrick (Genie of the Ring).

He reminisces with Jack Edwards (Abanazar) about Beauty and The Beast, an Easter panto which Jack directed and Antony starred in.

The cast guess what songs will be used for the dance sequences. Pharrell’s Happy or All About That Bass by Meghan Trainor are the top picks, and Jade Ellis of X Factor fame groans at the idea of Let It Go from Frozen.

She is chatting to Jack, both pictured far left, about a funny anecdote. I ask her what she is talking about.

‘Last year I was in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Princess Theatre in Torquay and I played the Fairy Peapod,’ says Jade.

‘I was doing the 12 Days Of Christmas number and the actor playing Jack ran past.

‘His costume hooked on to mine and he undid it in the middle of the number. I had to hold on to my modesty and hope for the song to end.’

She asks me where is good to go out in Portsmouth. I tell her Albert Road is on her doorstep.

‘As the rehearsals get more intense we all tend to let our hair down more. We would like to attack the nightlife soon.’

Director Simon arrives, and Jade (Genie of the Lamp) goes in for a hug, but not before Simon clocks her new sleeve tattoo.

‘The disapproval face! We can cover it up with make-up or something,’ Jade jokes.

Kitty makes her entrance, and the read-through can begin. She is wearing a spotted fur coat, bobble hat, running shoes and sports leggings, and quietly introduces herself, a far cry from her huge stage persona.

Her and Jade are both renting accommodation in Portsmouth during the panto and they break the ice by comparing houses.

‘This is not the Bible,’ Simon says as some scripts are handed around. ‘If you are struggling with a line we can change things, that is what today is about.’

Kitty opens a fresh pack of pens and begins to systematically highlight her script. I ask her how they will possibly learn their lines with just over a week to opening night.

‘This is nothing. I read through my script five times over the weekend but I haven’t learnt it because it is hard to unlearn when changes are made,’ she says.

‘I have a musical theatre background so I am super quick at learning lines, it will be fine. I take what I do onstage very seriously.’

Jack goes all guns blazing into the read-through, his voice booming around the room, but some other actors are keeping their energy in reserve for now.

Simon, 63, hops around the circle of chairs to give direction. When he starts lungeing, the cast erupt into laughter. He calls a much-needed cigarette break soon after.

Outside the stage door Simon, Antony and Jade discuss how the day is going so far. Simon lights a cigarette and takes a drag, his fingerless gloves coming in useful against the cold.

‘This five minutes out here is more important than anything we do in there, because for a panto to work the cast needs to enjoy themselves as a group of people.

‘This morning we are making sure the script is right. We re-use the same scripts, but there are two reasons why you would take out a line – either it has become offensive due to something that has happened in the news or because children have lost reference to it.

‘Trends change – it went from hot water bottles and then everyone had electric blankets, and now hot water bottles are back.

‘This afternoon we start blocking where the actors go in and out and that is when you learn your lines.’

He adds: ‘I am less like a director and more like a referee. My job is to make sure the performance has light and shade. Sometimes it is as important to shut up as it is to chip in – isn’t it Aiden?’

They are joined by Aiden J Harvey, 62, who plays Wishee Washee. ‘Are you telling me to shut up then?’ he jokes.

Simon cites himself as an example. He played one of the ‘uglies’ in Cinderella in Wimbledon, starring Bonnie Langford.

‘Me and my partner stole the show but we should have been reined back,’ he says.

‘I was wearing a sink with a chain and plug, and I had a bath mat for a skirt.’

‘They were the best ugly sisters I have ever seen,’ says Aiden.

The pair continue to reminisce and Antony and Jade are taking it in.

‘The longest panto I did was Cinderella with Frankie Howerd,’ says Simon. ‘It was four-and-a-half hours. He had his own fairy Godmother, his own Cinderella. He had a cow from Jack and the Beanstalk and we sold that too.’

‘He rehearsed in the room upstairs and we were called up individually to read with him.’

Soon enough the break is over and we filter back inside.

The set has finally arrived, and the staging is beginning to take shape. An assortment of trinkets litter the stage, including golden caskets and a huge wooden backdrop painted like a palace.

It looks like Aladdin’s cave already, but there is still plenty of work to be done before opening night.

Aladdin is at the Kings Theatre in Southsea from Tuesday, December 9 to Sunday, January 4. Tickets cost from £18.50 to £22.50, concessions are available. Go to kingsportsmouth.co.uk or call (023) 9282 8282.

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