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Fearless Females - Over the Top celebrates the women of World War I

Posted on 29 November 2018

Pack up your troubles and prepare for an evening of Suffragette-themed silliness when Over the Top opens at the Belgrade Theatre this December.

Running 1-29 December, Over the Top is the latest in a series of “alternative pantos” penned for the Belgrade’s B2 studio stage by local playwright Nick Walker, who has served up a reliably funny festive treat for Coventry audiences every Christmas since 2012.

Set in 1917, this year’s offering tells the story of a group of Suffragette performers from the fictional “Actresses’ Franchise League”, who find themselves trapped behind enemy lines on the Western Front, after setting out to stage a show to lift the spirits of the troops. Luckily, Sergeant Bell is on hand with a crack team of daredevils ready to mount a rescue mission – but will any of them make it back to Blighty in time for Christmas?

Taking on the mantle of director from Nick Walker for the first time is former B2 panto actor Katy Stephens. Ahead of the show’s opening, we spoke to her to find out more about how she’s taking to the role, and what audiences should expect from this year’s show.

“I first met Nick when we were working on Fantastic Mr Fox together at the Belgrade in 2001, so we’ve known each other for a long time. I’ve been involved with his alternative Christmas shows for the last six years, but since I wasn’t able to perform this year, and Nick has just had a baby, we thought it would be a good idea for me to take over as director,” she explains.

“It’s been a really interesting process – I think I understand a lot more about the directors I’ve worked with in the past now. But what’s great about working on this show is that we’ve got a really fantastic, talented company and it’s been very collaborative all the way through – not just between me and Nick, but also with the cast and with our brilliant stage manager, Sharlene.”

Over the Top cast

This collaborative process has led the story down some unexpected avenues. Previous B2 Christmas shows have often set out to parody a particular movie genre, such as last year’s Spaghetti Western-style The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Sisters, or 2016’s noir spoof Private Dick Whittington. While this year’s show originally departed from that formula, film references have still gradually found their way into the story.

“It was always loosely in the music hall style because of its 1917 setting,” says Katy. “But what we found as we were developing it during rehearsals were elements of the silent film style emerging, which we then decided to expand on.”

In turn, that adherence to period styles and conventions has helped them to handle the show’s subject matter sensitively, without losing sight of the light-hearted, playful spirit at the heart of the Belgrade’s alternative pantomimes. In what may well be a B2 panto first, this year’s show promises to be poignant as well as laugh-out-loud funny.

“Getting the tone right has probably been the hardest thing, but by keeping everything appropriate to 1917, it almost monitored itself. Panto and music hall have a very similar relationship to their audiences, so that was a natural fit, but I hope that amidst all the one-liners, we’ve managed to keep the elegance of the era.”

Adding to the authenticity of the story is the fact that the characters portrayed on stage are all inspired by real-life female heroes of the First World War. While women’s contributions to the war effort at home in Britain are common knowledge, what’s less widely known is the fact that women also worked on the Front Lines in a huge array of roles, from acting to setting up hospitals to defusing bombs, and even, in some cases, joining the fighting.

“The characters that our cast are playing are Gertrude Bell, who helped people to navigate through the Middle East; Lottie Mead, who was a bomb disposal expert; Edith Cavell, quite a famous nurse who was eventually executed by the Germans for helping allied prisoners to escape; and Lena Ashwell, an incredible woman who took a troupe of actors out to the Front and performed in really, really dangerous situations for the troops who were out there. So they’re four extraordinarily brave women who did amazing things during the war, often under-cover.”

Like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Sisters, Over the Top features an all-female cast ( Laura Tipper, Miriam Grace Edwards, Amy Powell and Kimisha Lewis ) and plenty of traditional, panto-style gender-swapping, the actors switching between the roles of soldiers and performers through a series of quickfire and often unexpected changes.

“I think that creating more opportunities for women on stage is something that every theatre in the country should be looking to do at the moment, because we’re still often horrendously outnumbered,” says Katy.

Seriousness aside, audiences should above all else expect a side-splittingly funny night out, packed with puns, slapstick comedy and even the odd topical gag.

Over the Top shows at the Belgrade Theatre 1-29 December. Tickets are available to book now.