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Panto that's just the tonic for elderly audiences

Putting On The Ritz is a far cry from tunes made famous by X Factor or the Korean Pop hit Gangnam Style which have been the mainstays of this year's panto season.

Sung by the Prince in Theatre Presto's Cinderella, the song from the 1930 musical is proving a hit with a very specific set of audiences. The company is working through a hectic period of 51 dates for its 2012 panto, which is tailored for taking to the elderly in care homes.

The company was set up last year by Preston Clare who spent 18 years as lead dancer with Scottish Ballet and admits he could never have imagined the potential for this venture.

"After leaving Scottish Ballet I retrained as an actor and worked in London for three years where I got involved with a company which did panto for the elderly, but not terribly well," he says. "I liked the concept but it irritated me because I felt it was more about making a quick buck than tailoring it for the audience and I knew I could do it better. So I came back to Glasgow, put a business plan together and took it to Scottish Ballet which has a Dancers' Career Development service. They thought it was wonderful and helped with funding. Last year we did 32 shows."

With even more bookings to fulfil this year, he has two other cast members – currently Eilidh Trotter and Dawn Robertson. it is not quite a one-man show but since he writes the plays, makes the costumes, organises the props and does the marketing, he can claim to be the man in charge.

His versions of popular panto titles are written and designed for the elderly and his is the only theatre company bringing performances to this group. Other touring theatres visit care homes but their material is geared for a general audience while his central premise is to tailor them specifically for the elderly.

This means musical references – and jokes – from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

"It's quite therapeutic," says Preston. "My plays contain a lot of older songs and references and that gives my audience a comforting sense as well as simply being a bit of good old-fashioned entertainment. The performances are an hour long and Theatre Presto sets up early enough to allow the cast time to go out to meet the audience beforehand and distribute programmes.

Care home staff tend to throw themselves into the spirit of the occasion as well, often with ice cream or a sherry adding to the enjoyment. For Cinderella, audiences have been encouraged to make fans beforehand to wave during the performance.

"It's interactive and terrific fun," says Preston. "We don't know the audience but we can engage them as a group and the feedback we get lets us know it's working. Last year care staff were talking with delight about particular people and their reactions to the panto, such as an elderly lady with dementia who rarely communicated. Her face lit up when she heard the music and knowing we're making such an important connection is hugely rewarding."

Panto is traditionally for all the family, but taking it back a few decades only changes the music and references, while the classic tales remain the same. "I work with Cardonald College and foreign students learn about panto. That brought home to me just how much a part of British life pantomime is," says Preston.

www.theatrepresto.co.uk

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