Messing About On The River

It’s Bank Holiday Monday and there are no rehearsals. JP (John-Pierre Van der Spuy), our resident director, had an idea that he should accompany Laurence (our Associate Director) and myself for a day on the river learning the art of punting. This should help to get the feel of how it is to really punt. As many of you already know The Phantom punts his way into his lair twice. It’s quite an iconic image of the show really, probably second only to the mask itself. I have to admit, I’ve always been quite confident with my punting skills and feel I’ve always done it justice, but I love researching for roles and getting the physicality of a character is just as important to me as the character’s backstory. I’ve also never punted for real, so I figured it will be a great day out. Thankfully the good Lord gave us beautiful sunshine the whole weekend. Up to Cambridge we go.

The town is full of character and characters. One of those being Janne, the guy who organised our punt for us. He’s a rocker leading his band White Subway (big shout for him since he scored us a great tour) and organises punting tours to fund his band. Ah, the joys of rock n roll. Anyhow, our first punt was an organised tour of the canal with a guide and punting teacher. His name was James, and he was punting his way through the summer to make some extra cash before going back to university. He is actually a big fan of the show and loved the special effects. I think he is going to very happy to know that he is now connected with the show and The Phantom’s punting skills. He will be coming back to visit the show as my guest. Here is James, our expert Punter.

James takes the helm and starts the tour by punting us along the canal. He orates the history that corresponds to the various buildings along our route. Most of which was pretty interesting. Then it was time. Time for us to try out our punting skills. I’m up first. James briefs me on the basic punting skills before I take control of the pole.

Here he is showing me… up close and personal. I thought this was pretty fresh of him. Smooth.

OK, right away you can see how big the pole is. It is very heavy and substantial to hold. Traditionally the poles in Cambridge are 16ft in length and weight about 10lbs. At this point I was wishing for stage management to be in the wings with the remote control. No such luck. The punting has to begin or a collision with another punter would be inevitable.

Punting is actually not that easy. At least not for beginners like us. The time between strokes is actually longer then I anticipated. After a pushing with the pole off the canal surface you then steer it a bit just to keep the boat in a straight line. If you want to steer your boat in any direction you have let half the pole trail and use it like a rudder whilst resting on your hip.

After a few minutes we all soon realized that I’m actually not that bad. I guess I’ve had a bit of punting practice being the Standby Phantom for a year, who knows. I was able to keep us going in a fairly straight line. I felt like a proud Phantom at this point. I could see here that James was indeed happy.

Now it’s Laurence’s turn to punt. One thing about Laurence is that he really thinks like a director. In his punting you can see he was trying to be very detailed in his technique and very analytical about his pole action. It was quite funny seeing him work it all out. He started off a bit slow and thankfully I had the camera on hand.

Here is Laurence planning out his route ahead. I’m telling you, this guy thinks things through right down to the tee. He really was focused on his technique. So let’s see where he took us. With so many beautiful buildings along the canal which one would Laurence take us too? The mathematical bridge? Kings College? Oh surely the College Clocktower.

Umm, just a second here. Let’s just give him a chance to get past this tree. It seems we are veering off to the left a bit. No worries. Laurence knows what he’s doing… Right… Laurence… Dude… Where you going?

Man, you’ve got to be kidding me, right into the tree. Not brushing along it or bumping into, literally through the thing. Believe me when I say, we were stuck here for a bit. Even James did not want to get involved at this point. The funny thing was that it wasn’t even a narrow part of the canal. There was so much room to manoeuvre but hey, we were all beginners right? I think this was a good time to get JP in the captains chair.

Here is our newly appointed resident director. I think he’s looking quite nautical too. I am confident we are in good hands with JP. He is a very sporty and competitive guy. He doesn’t like doing things badly. He’s one of those guys that no matter what he puts his hand too, he seems to do it well.

It is at this point I should explain another technical point one must know when punting. It is to listen to the sound that the pole makes when it hits the canal floor. This is to judge whether you are over a gravel patch or a mud patch. If you are over a gravel patch then you push hard to move the punt but if you are over a mud patch then you push gently so you don’t get your pole stuck. I am certain JP knew this… right… JP? Do you need a hand?… JP… JP?

There is our punt. Alone in a patch of mud. At least this happened early on in our day so it is bound to be a one off. Right? Laurence? Ok, then twice, it shouldn’t happen more than twice. Just like going into a tree. What are the odds of that happening twice? Right? JP? I’ll never forget shouting to Laurence to hit the deck as this tree approached us. I hid in between the treads at the hull while Laurence went completely vertical to miss out on a face full of leaves and branches. Somehow JP managed to crouch so low that his knees were above his head yet keeping hold of the pole. We came to a stand still. The boat and us three were completely covered by this tree. To give JP some kudos here he somehow was able to stay in this odd physical position but still punts us out to the open canal. It was here we realised that we were a source of entertainment for the other punters who clearly saw us heading towards this tree. Thanks for the heads up guys.

After this we all got the hang of punting. We managed to keep the boat fairly straight. We didn’t hit anything or anyone anymore. At we never once fell in.

I feel I’ve got a much better idea and grasp on the whole punting thing now. I have had a chance to punt on stage since this day and I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned to The Phantom’s physicality whilst he punts. I’m now concentrating so much on punting that I’m forgetting to sing. Maybe I should’ve sung a few tunes on the canal to really get the feel of it.

Ramin Karimloo

Now Touring Across North America