On Wednesday evening I found myself on my feet applauding the finale of Sleeping Beauty, an exuberant moment of utter joy. Having had the pleasure of observing rehearsals for the last few months, I persuaded a group of colleagues from Royal Holloway, University of London to come with me to see the show. Academics can be a sceptical bunch - we are trained as critical thinkers - but these theatre scholars, too, were on their feet cheering and shouting and clapping, caught up in the atmosphere of the performance. There was a generosity of spirit in the theatre that was infectious.
Research, surely, shouldn’t be this much fun?
The British Airways Cabin Crew Entertainment Society (BACCES) is well-known for its annual pantomime, and its high production values led it to perform in a new venue in 2016, Watford Palace Theatre. Watford Palace is a beautiful Victorian theatre, and its opulence framed the spectacle of BACCES’s performance. The audience were taken on a magical journey into the Land of Nod, travelling with British Airways cabin crew, sometimes wearing their BA uniforms but more often in the most fabulous of concoctions. There was serious amateur talent on stage, both from the performers and from the costume and props-makers. It would be easy to describe the production as a confection - delicious and sometimes naughty - but that would miss the deeper significance and more important values that were also on show.
In this research project I have become interested in the relationship between amateur theatre and participants’ working lives. The BACCES panto has given me an opportunity to reflect on what means, and whether there is a relationship between performance I witness on stage and the working lives of the company. I live quite near to Heathrow, and I know from my cabin crew neighbours that it can be a lonely job with long hours and regular sleep deprivation.
Everyone on stage is a member of the BA cabin crew, with a few recently retired from service. The relationship to work referenced in performance, and the loyal audience expects jokes about pilots, life as a crew member and BA company policy, and there is always a ‘uniform number’ at some stage during the show. As cabin crew, the cast are used to welcoming people on board flights and putting travellers at ease. In some ways the job is a performance in itself, and I am interested in whether the strong ensemble that I witness on stage is somehow linked to their working livesand their team work as cabin crew. For sure, at rehearsals I have felt not only welcomed but hosted, with company members always offering me tea and coffee and asking if I am warm enough when rehearsals have taken place in a cold room. Looking after people is second nature. The irony of cabin crew performing Sleeping Beauty was not lost, and in the programme notes the company share their tips for a good night’s sleep.
It is interesting to debate the relationship between work and performance, but does not quite account for the genuine generosity I see on stage, nor for the atmosphere of joy that infected me and the rest of the audience last Wednesday night. BACCES have a long history of raising significant money for charity, and company members have frequently told me that this is an important aspect of their work. Performance and charity come together, and perhaps, for the moment, that explanation is enough. Sleeping Beauty is amateur theatre as a charitable gift, given for the love of it.