Here I am, still in Glasgow, ensconced in the cut and thrust of rehearsals for Sleeping Beauty, this years panto at Glasgow’s Oran Mor. While some “serious” actors complain about the indignity of such things I on the other hand love panto. I always have done since I saw Scrooge in 1979 aged eight. It is a multimedia, interactive entertainment that is incomparable to anything else in the arts. It is fable, philosophy, parable and satirical statement all one big, camp, colourful package.
What other art form or entertainment involves the audience so much? Here we have a reality on stage, a bizarre reality but a perceived reality none the less, which very easily coexists and interacts with our own reality – that of sitting in an audience watching it all happen. We find it perfectly acceptable for Widow Twankee to come out of her nineteenth century Shanghai laundry to ask Scottish school kids and Sharon’s 40th birthday night out, “What do you think, boys and girls? Should we steal the landlord’s money?” And everyone gets it.
The satire involved is often very cutting. The cast have a tendency to adapt gags to new bits of news, sometimes even that day’s news. Here’s a short passage from a performance that I did as Wishee Washee, with actor John Hannibal as Widow Twankee, in Aladdin at Dunfermline Carnegie Hall just after Henry McLeish stepped down as first minister and Jack McConnell aired his affairs before taking office:
Widow Twankey: (in tears) Oh, son, son.
Wishee Washee: Whit is it?
WT: That’s us flung oot. Evictit! Where are we gonny live noo?
WW: Don’t worry, Mammy. That nice Mr McLeish has got some places for rent in Glen Rothes.
WT: Och, son, we canny afford that. I’ll need a new job.
WW: I hear that Jack McConnell’s looking for a new secretary.
WT: I applied, son, but he wisnae impressed by my shorthand.
Panto in Scotland, too, does not seem to have succumbed to the dumbing down of panto, as in the south. You won’t see the stars of Big Brother (much) or charismatic sportsmen on stage. You see actors. Acting. You see stories written by writers, not just something strung together around the usual summer season routine of the main stars.
The stories themselves are always on the same subject: the struggle between good and evil. We see good represented by a fairy godmother. Her representative on earth will be some impoverished soul with the kindest heart in the kingdom. Evil will be represented by a witch or a genie whose earthbound bidder is a greedy landlord or a sneaky wicked stepmother. Good = kindness; bad = greed. And, of course, good always wins out in the end, sending evil back from whence it came and saving the landlord from his corrupt ways, sometimes even marrying him off to the Dame.
And, of course, there’s the Dame! You don’t see so many traditional Dames these days, and fair enough. Men play men and women play women. While some may have thought this grotesque portrayal of women was offensive, I think they miss the point.
The reason the Dame is played by a man is to emphasise the grotesque nature of her character, just as the principal boy was played by a young woman to emphasise the gentle and sweet nature of the Prince’s character. We have accepted that these days male and female actors can be trusted to portray those characteristics under their own steam and talent. But the Dame is still imperative to the panto experience. She is our portal, our mother and governess, who will guide us through the black forest.
Another channel for the audience is the character which has come to be known as “the daft boay”, definitively played by the very much mourned Gerard Kelly. His fear of the baddie, his unrequited love for the princess, his sudden burst of bravery when his mammy or the princess is in danger. These are all things that speak to us.
There are few art and entertainment forms that appeal to young and old, rich and poor, sophisticate and plebeian, intelligentsia and cognoscenti alike. The music, the dancing, the glitter, the laughs, the struggle, the triumph (and not forgetting the free sweets) all make for a unique and uncategorisable phenomenon of popular culture.
But, alas, it is all over too soon. You go back to your bitter reality and the whole joyous experience is BEHIND YOU! ( Sorry. Had to do it.)