The Greatest Storm – A Virtual Pantomime

Devon Francis d.francis@pgr.reading.ac.uk
Max Coleman m.r.coleman@pgr.reading.ac.uk

Every year the Met-PhDs put on a Christmas pantomime and perform it to the rest of the department. The autumn term always seems to drag: the mornings are dark; the evenings are darker; and no matter how hard you try, the term just feels so busy! So what better way to finish off the term than with department jokes, terrible singing and unnecessary Benny Hill chase scenes?

Met Panto 2020 virtual group photo

And despite of a global pandemic that is in full swing, this year would be no different – the show must go on! On 10th December we premiered the very first virtual Met panto: The Greatest Storm! – A spin-off of the 2017 film ‘The Greatest Showman’. The Greatest Storm follows Professor Sue Gray Barnum (or PG Barnum for short) on her journey to find the greatest storm. On her way she meets her “misfit” team: Helen Dacre, Pete Inness, Tom Frame and Javier Amezcua, and recruits her right-hand man: Philip-Craig Carlyle. Together they develop a new instrument: DOROTHY, the Data recORding unit fOr in-siTu sting jet measurements High in the skY. But with COVID lurking around every corner, will they ever be able to measure the Greatest Storm? (…although it will actually just be the greatest storm on record…)

Panto 2020 poster – designed and created by Meg Stretton

This year, Max and I were persuaded volunteered for the role of panto organisers, with the promise that running the panto would be ‘much easier’ than previous years as everything would be online. This was partly true, though there was still a lot of last-minute tweaking…

We were very fortunate that Kris Boykin brought forward the idea to recreate The Greatest Showman, with a detailed plan for the plot, which fought off the other (very good) competition for plot ideas. This made the script writing relatively pain-free as we filled in the details and decided on which of the staff should be included.

Next was the song writing: in retrospect, the songs we chose were quite difficult to get right, as it was challenging to stay in time when singing for most of them, especially when we had changed the lyrics to include meteorological puns! In a live panto this might not have been so bad, but as everything had to be recorded individually and put together by our audio editing experts Dominic Jones and Beth Saunders, we can only say, Dom, we’re very sorry…  

The next 9 weeks were filled with read throughs, character selection and filming. In a normal year, these weeks would be relatively relaxed, with rehearsals spanning the full 9 weeks, however as we were aware that the video editors Lauren James and Wilson Chan had a lot of work to do in putting all of the scenes together, we tried to film as early as possible to give them more time. Our initial plan was to meet up on a weekend to film the parts in a socially distanced setting, but as the second lockdown was announced, we had to quickly change our plan. Some scenes were filmed individually, but the majority were filmed over Zoom: although this had reduced camera quality, it was much more fun to see each other every week and laugh at everyone’s wacky costumes and improvisation!

The last week leading up to Thursday’s showing (tomorrow as we’re writing this!) was slightly busier, with reviewing footage and making final edits, in the knowledge that in these unprecedented circumstances most of the cast will not have seen a complete run through before the final showing! In the end it all came together with an entirely smooth and seamless virtual viewing experience / it all went horribly wrong and we should never have been entrusted with panto (delete as applicable), which everyone viewing hopefully enjoyed!

Screenshot of scene 2 – the misfits’ entrance.

With that, we’d like to say thank you so much to everyone involved, from script writers, band, editors, cast and everyone that helped both on and off our virtual stage! It has been so lovely to see everyone come together, and although has been a very tiring process, panto 2020 has been a very welcome distraction to the rest of 2020!

This year we did not sell tickets, but instead asked for donations to cover our (reasonably small!) running costs, plus any extra will go to the Reading Meteorology department’s charity: San Francisco Libre Association. If you didn’t donate on the night, but wanted to, here’s a link to our donations page – https://paypal.me/pools/c/8uIzsVEQwB. We were so humbled by everyone that has already donated, both small and large amounts, we really appreciate it!

Thank you to everyone that watched The Greatest Storm on Thursday, we hope you had a fun evening! And we look forward to next year’s panto; who will be next to volunteer for this incredible tradition, with panto 2021…?

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