What an honour – as a former bit-part player in amateur dramaticals – to be asked to tread the professional boards of Bath’s Theatre Royal.
In 1989 l got to play the bad old Sheriff of Nottingham in Babes in the Wood – alongside real stars like Roy Hudd, the late and lovely Geoffrey Hughes and singer Lyn Paul.
I am well aware of what a superstitious place it can be back-stage. For instance Macbeth is always spoken of as ‘the Scottish Play’ for fear that it won’t be just Birnham Wood on the move but could be your whole audience!
However, this wasn’t so much Shakespeare as the annual Christmas pantomime – something that has always been part of the annual calendar at the Theatre Royal.
But for a building that has it’s fair share of ghosts and blood-stained ceilings the strange story of the tortoiseshell butterfly must be the most popular sighting.
My thanks to Anna O’Callaghan – who has written a recent history of the building – for helping me fill in the background.
The 1948 panto of Little Red Riding Hood included a butterfly ballet with a glittering butterfly backdrop made of gauze and surrounded with lights.
During rehearsals a dead butterfly was found on stage and shortly afterwards while the theatre’s then owner Reg Maddox was lighting the scene he dropped dead of a heart attack.
Was it an omen of bad luck? Well the scene was withdrawn until – that is – a live butterfly was seen fluttering around backstage and the ballet was restored to a show that went on to be a big success.
Ever since then the butterfly has been the sign of a successful pantomime and puts in a regular appearance.
On Boxing Day 1979 a butterfly even landed on the late Leslie Crowther’s shoulder – during a performance of Aladdin!
That piece of butterfly scenery has remained hanging in the theatre’s fly tower since 1949.
During the time the theatre closed for a major renovation in the early 1980’s the butterfly gauze was taken away and looked after by Bath Operatic and Dramatic Society in order not to tempt bad luck. It was reinstated when the theatre re-opened.
Proud to say our jolly company saw the butterfly fluttering back stage over that Christmas 1989/90 – and enjoyed a successful run. Though l was never asked to reprise my roll.
Anna’s book – Past, Present, Future – a recent history of the Theatre Royal Bath – delivers the spookiest titbit on our insect friend.
During renovations – when the interior was being pulled apart – members of the stage crew came across a heavy wooden box. When it was opened out fluttered half a dozen tortoiseshells. Resting inside was a photo of the previous owner Reg Maddox. Is the butterfly his ghost?
Oh no it isn’t! Just maybe – oh yes it is!