For the first time the artistic director of the Assembly Hall, John-Jackson Almond (pictured left), is taking charge of the theatre’s annual pantomime. Here he tells Eileen Leahy why he decided to get involved with Aladdin

EVERY Christmas pantomime fans of all ages look forward to seeing The Assembly Hall’s big seasonal show. For over a decade the theatre has invited UK Productions to put on a panto and as a result enjoyed record audience numbers flocking to the venue to see the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with Su Pollard last year and Cinderella starring CBBC’s Dani Harmer the year before.

This year however, change is afoot with the Assembly Hall’s artistic director John-Jackson Almond, known as JJ, overseeing the  2017 offering, Aladdin. This is the first time this has ever happened at the theatre so I was curious to find out why JJ, who has been at the helm since May 2016, decided that he would be sitting in the director’s chair and telling Aladdin’s cast members, which include former Eastenders star Michael Greco (Abanazar), Britain’s Got Talent star Jess Robinson (Slave of the Ring) and children’s TV
presenter Mark Rhodes (Aladdin) what to do.

“Well I am the theatre’s director so it’s important that I’m actually directing shows at the Assembly Hall and for its community,” he states.

“We as a venue need to take some ownership of the thing that most people come to see throughout the whole year. Delivering pantomime is a gift as for some people it’s their first experience of theatre so there’s a responsibility that goes with that which we should embrace and enjoy.

“Also I’m very aware that families save to bring their children to a pantomime. It’s an important part of their life and sometimes the only time they find themselves in a theatre for the whole year. How amazing for the team here to be much more involved in delivering that to the people?”

There has been no falling out with UK Productions JJ reassures me. In fact they are
still very much involved as producers and in charge of casting, although JJ was consulted on this angle too. In fact, he goes on to say that UK Production’s boss Martin Dodds was totally ‘open’ about the whole idea.

“It’s still their set, their values, their production but Martin said that he really wants the
Assembly Hall venue and people of Tunbridge Wells to feel like this is their panto and that they’re being served. That’s why he has been so open about me putting a creative team together and working with them on it.”

The pair started working on the script in February this year and then picked things up again in June when they discussed what their ‘production values’ would be. Late summer
came the auditions process to cast dancers and the extra parts but according to JJ the real work has only just started.

“It’s a busy time. We’ve got through the technical rehearsals and opened the panto but the really hard work is now for all those people delivering the shows twice a day until January 3. They deserve a lot more credit than I do!”

JJ says that so far the cast vibe has been ‘really good fun’ and they’re excited about playing their characters and performing some of the jokes that have been written.

“The cast really enjoys getting in front of a new audience as it brings a freshness to things and you think ‘Oh, ok that joke is funny’ because when you’re stuck in a rehearsal room and have heard it time and time again for a week you start to think it isn’t.

“After the first six shows or so we might make adjustments but after that you really have to stop tinkering as it’s important to let the cast settle and get into their routines. The great
thing is they’ve all done panto before. Mark Rhodes played Aladdin in Bath last year and Michael Greco who has been in Los Angeles for a bit has done quite a lot of panto previously. They can all sing well, they move nicely and our ensemble cast are just fantastic. Sometimes they don’t gel but these do and they all look great together when
they dance and harmonise.

I think it’s a really strong show.” JJ is no stranger to pantomimes either. Prior to this he
directed Maureen and Linda Nolan in Jack and The Beanstalk at the Shaw Theatre in London and also AlisonHammond and Oliver Mellor in Beauty and the Beast.

“I haven’t done a panto since moving here but I’m really excited about Aladdin. It’s been so much fun and has been intense as there’s not much time but you’re working with people who’ve all done it before and they’re pros. They know what works for both themselves and the audience, and the rehearsal room we’ve been in for the past couple of weeks has been lots of fun with lots of play!”

And does JJ have any surprises up his sleeve for the audience? “There will be some surprises in store in the venue but I’m not telling you what! You’ll just have to come along and see for yourself.”

Aladdin runs at the Assembly Hall until January 3. To book tickets go to www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk