It's Christmas at The Club in Abu Dhabi. In the car park, a big sign wishes members a "Happy Festive Season", a wooden grotto outside the reception is piping Christmas music and selling chutney, mince pies and Stollen and their theatre is in the midst of a full dress rehearsal for this year's pantomime, Rumplesillyskin, by the Abu Dhabi Dramatic Society (ADDS). "Girls these days don't know where their waists are," chides Maggie Hannan, the director of the show, as she tweaks the pink silk skirt of her young female lead. "They think it's down below their navel." The skirt is duly hitched up. "Right, go and get your make-up done now; you need to look like a painted doll," orders another to the lead. Meanwhile, Richard Liddington, chairman of ADDS, sits with the lighting designer at a nearby table poring over a laptop. "Scene nine is five, ah, OK, scene 10 is one-two-five," he says, trying to work out lighting cues that sounds as complex as the Enigma code.
This year's pantomime is the first that Hannan has directed for ADDS, although she was involved in the musical elements of last year's Snow White. She is an old hand in Abu Dhabi, having originally lived here 25 years ago when she ran a dance theatre out of her villa. "I come from a showbusiness background," she explains. "My grandmother was on Broadway, I was raised on Shakespeare, opera and classical ballet. I didn't know anything outside of the arts for years."
Abu Dhabi has been a grateful recipient of her experience, although she had a break from the capital, teaching theatre studies in the UK before she and her husband returned to the city just under two years ago. Hannan has since thrown herself back into the fledgling theatre scene here. Earlier this year, she taught at the New York Film Academy and directed a Hamlet adaptation with her theatre company, Resuscitation ("because we resuscitate old classics").
For the past three months she has been frantic with the coordination of Rumplesillyskin, which brings together approximately 40 young and old bodies on stage (the youngest cast member is "seven and a bit") for nearly two hours of classic pantomime fun. As one might surmise, it's based loosely on the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, in which a king demands that a local girl spins straw into gold on pain of death. She receives help from a mischievous goblin in return for the promise that he can have her firstborn child.
"If you're not on stage you're in the green room," shouts a member of ADDS from the theatre wings as two mice scamper across stage in front of her. "Go to the green room please, sweetheart," asks Hannan when another small head pokes it way round the door. The cheerful mingling of children and adults in the pantomime is touching and something Hannan is proud of. "I see pantomime as a community project. That's my thing. It is for and about children." Members of ADDS have all helped out with the sections of the show that they can, such as wardrobe and costume. "Specific people for specific jobs," says Liddington, continuing to perfect lighting plans.
One of the dames was out of the country, due back late yesterday, giving Hannah cause for concern - a mere whisker of time before the curtain officially lifts tonight. "I just sent him a text saying that if his flight is cancelled he has to get another one and he has to text me when he's safely on the flight," she says, perhaps only half-jokingly. "Because it's an amateur show, I have people missing all the time. You can't tell people they have to be there, if they have work or they're ill. You can't be a dragon as a director. I don't see that as my role."
Lines, she says, are fine but there hasn't been quite enough preparation time. ADDS put on Rebecca in October, after which Rumplesillyskin rehearsals began. "But only twice a week, so about 12 rehearsals in all." A daunting prospect when there is a clamouring audience. More than 1,000 people are expected across the four nights that the pantomime will run, with three nights sold out and only a few tickets remaining for tonight's show.
The script was written by Sian Williams, a British expat who has had pantomime scripts published previously in the UK. The inspiration for Rumplesillyskin came at the suggestion of a friend, she says, and took about three weeks to write. "Imagine you live in a small town in the UK and go along to the town hall to see a pantomime done by the local, amateur dramatic society," explains Liddington. "That's exactly what we're doing here." Once he is happy with the technical side of things, the curtain wobbles back to reveal the set.
"We're ready," says Hannan. There is the usual pantomime cast here, including an angel and a demon, two pantomime dames - Vinda Loo and Tinda Loo - and a princess called Ginger. In the first scene, there is a snake charmer not having much luck with his reptilian charge, so he kicks the basket. Market stallholders bicker behind him. Later we meet the queen, who is prone to malapropisms. "It takes two to easy mango," she squeaks, and "In the words of Churchill, 'I have nothing to offer but blood, tears, toil and sweaters'".
"Let's do 15 minutes like it will be in the real thing," bellows Hannan at the interval, before going over a couple of brief technical notes: there are a few lighting issues that plunge the cast into darkness at inopportune moments, and a couple of crackly sound issues she's not happy with. But on the upside, they've shaved 10 minutes off the running time. Much of the second half is given over to the prince to save the princess before a big musical medley rounds things off.
Those looking for sophisticated humour might do better to search elsewhere. That's not what this show is about. "A lot of people get involved in amateur dramatics here because you can't just go to the theatre when you like," remarks Liddington. The consequences of this are productions such as Rumplesillyskin - a delightful, community riot through a topsy-turvy storyline with plenty of music to hum along to, pop-culture references and "he's behind you" lines to shout out. Frankly, it's just the ticket for Christmas.
* Rumplesillyskin runs at The Club (www.the-club.com) from tonight until Friday.