Pantomime – seasonal bread and circuses – or something more serious?

‘Oh no she didn’t!’ ‘Oh yes she did!’ ‘Oh no she didn’t!’ Recognise this? Right . . . the sort of thing we expect and possibly enjoy in pantomime. Is it good seasonal fare but bad theatre? Not surprisingly at this time of year, Rod Dungate has been wondering just that.
Can you imagine seeing three Cinderellas in three days well I just did (or nearly). Friday 19 December at Lichfield Garrick, Saturday 20 at Birmingham Hippodrome and Monday 22 the Belgrade in Coventry all reviewed on the site. Not only has it been fun but it’s also set me thinking about the nature of pantomime. At the risk of analysing an innocent pleasure to death . . . here are some thoughts. In the space of this short Web piece I may only scratch the surface, but if it sets a few minds rolling, then it’s achieved its purpose.

Although I draw only on the three Cinderellas, you’ll see, I’m sure, that much of what I say can be applied to any pantomime played within the usual traditional UK framework.

Here’s my starting point: IS PANTOMIME A SERIOUS FORM OF THEATRE? We can say straight away that just because it’s fun, foolish, easy and robust we can’t assume this means it’s not a serious form of theatre. When I’m teaching under-graduate trainee actors one of the first things I explore with them is the nature of theatre itself. Importantly the essence of a play doesn’t lie in the text, nor even in the acting space with the performers, but somewhere in the interface between performance and audience.

Nowhere could this interface been seen more dynamic than during a pantomime performance. Of course part of it is in the ‘Oh no he isn’t’, ‘Oh yes he is’ type of routine and in the booing and hissing (though there was very little booing and hissing during the Cinderellas). Adults enjoy this (sometimes) and we always enjoy the young audiences doing it. But see the play from the young person’s viewpoint they do better than us adults: they sit inside the play and outside it. At one moment interacting directly with a character/ actor, the next empathising with that character in the story. A truly dynamic interface.

The levels of performance are fascinating too. How often do we read scathing comments about soap stars and their roles in pantomime? For heavens sake why shouldn’t soap stars perform in pantomime and why shouldn’t people want to come and see them. The scathing comments, of course, are made by people who not only never watch a soap but also sneer at those who do. Sneer at the 16 million people who form the audience for a top soap.

Think of the levels of performance when TV stars play in pantomime here you don’t watch a character played by a performer you view through the character to another character (probably a TV character) and then below that the performer. The most obvious example from my Cinderella trio is Julian Clary (major TV star now) at the Hippodrome, which also has Henry Luxemburg as Prince Charming from Holyoakes. An audience do not come to see Julian Clary as Dandini but Clary’s performance of Clary’s TV persona play Dandini. An audience do not forget Luxemburg in Holyoakes they view the Prince within the Toby Mills context.

The same argument about the transparency in the playing would go for Jimmy Cricket at Lichfield. The Hippodrome also features local radio star Malcolm Boyden as the Broker’s Man: we anticipate seeing the actor through the character. If we can do that, then the performance they give is all the richer and more enjoyable.

Andy Hockley does a similar thing at Coventry though he’s another version of it. Hockley is a working actor: on this site he’s reviewed in Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and in Madness of King George III, Henry V, A Woman Killed with Kindness, Enemy of the People, Richard III and Twelfth Night. At the Belgrade, however, he’s known as the Dame. Hence, the audience see any dame role he plays as Andy-Hockley-the-Dame and good friend – before they see Hockley the actor. (As an aside, I would mention that I got chatting with an American visitor during the interval at the Belgrade. We were discussing panto the like of which they don’t have in the US – and mentioned Hockley’s regular appearances. He knew absolutely without hesitation which Ugly Sister Hockley was playing because he had experienced Hockley’s deep relationship with the house. These things don’t go unnoticed.)

Once you think about these things, it simply isn’t tenable to argue that the performers aren’t good enough at performing to disappear within the character, nor that the acting is simply coarse. It’s a different, skilled and energetic type of performance and, moreover, our relationship with the performance is different.

Skilled performance because many of these performers interact directly with the audience (Prince Charming is an exception more of this anon.) I have been surprised (pleasantly) by the level of control these performers have with the audience they keep the show driving forwards incorporating the interaction within the forward pace. And handle children’s helpful comments and witty hecklers to boot.

These main characters Sisters and Buttons are a type of clown: indeed, I used the word describing Jimmy Cricket’s rather gentle fooling. The Birmingham Hippodrome’s Cinderella is focused differently from the other two in this one, the main character has to be Dandini because Julian Clary is the star. On paper this is an uncomfortable shift: in reality it doesn’t matter at all. We’re comfortable with it partly because pantomime is such a flexible form and because we don’t worry particularly about the story (the narrative thrust). Pantomime doesn’t work through the narrative, but rather by fulfilling a group of expectations of set pieces.

Returning to Dandini: Julian Clary’s performance is surrounded by interesting questions of political correctness but for now I leave these alone. What is interesting to note here, that within the context of the panto, Clary is himself a kind of clown. This is the circus clown with the white face, pointed hat and sparkly costume. The one who, despite all the efforts of the other clowns, never ever gets messed up or made to look foolish. The jokes often backfire on the other clowns who suffer as the butt of their own jokes. This is exactly how Clary operates within the Cinderella context: plus the fact he never takes himself too seriously. This is not the same as saying he doesn’t take his performance seriously as you’ll see in my review.

The Principal Boy role has long since disappeared (in these pantomimes most likely Prince Charming.) It disappeared not, I suspect, due to the political incorrectness of showing women’s legs, but because it lost its purpose since we can see women’s legs all the time. This has resulted in a seriously dull role: perhaps the time has come to reappraise this character to give him a bit of go.

The Dame characters (here ugly Sisters) have refused stubbornly to go away. Why their resistance to change? I don’t think it can seriously be argued that their success lies in the fact they make women look ridiculous: they are so far removed from real women that they have ceased to have any touch with reality.

The truth is they are another manifestation of the clown. Look at them preposterous costumes, physical hugely broad playing, slap-stick, strange makeup. They are grotesques. Again, thinking of the transparency of the playing, it’s the men we laugh at in their ridiculousness not the women they portray.

The Ugly Sisters have much of the comic business: seeing three productions in a row I was struck that the same bits of business kept appearing. Much of it is obvious, so not too much can be read into it. What bits? One of the sisters having a false leg to put into the slipper (mentioned in the story), one asking for her stocking to be pulled off and it being hugely, hugely long. Another one sister looks into a hand mirror and screams. ‘What’s that?’ she asks passing the mirror to her sister. ‘Me’ the second answers, looking in the mirror. ‘Thank god for that,’ the first says, ‘I thought it was me.’ These are like recognised (and expected) bits of comic business just like the actors had in the Commedia dell’Arte.

I’d hear the same jokes. Baron (to Buttons), ‘Why don’t you grow up, stupid!’: Buttons, ‘I did grow up stupid.’ (It’s all in the punctuation.) I confess, I confess I laughed every time.

The ‘recognition factor’ is a major element in pantomime’s undying popularity and I saw audiences of all ages enjoying them. But the recognition isn’t enough on its own. There’s something else.

The form is flexible each of the three Cinderellas I saw were totally different in feel. And we must remember they are performed by live performers. Each will bring his or her own style and creativity to what they do. We have, then, the best of both worlds: pantomimes can appeal to our childlike pleasure in the known and our sense of admiration at the skill or individuals to make it strange and new.

Enjoy your panto this year.

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2003-12-24 12:41:06

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