Art, Events, Features, Humour, Music, Performance, Stage, Uncategorized

There is Nothing Like a Dame

As a childless and slightly world-weary cynic of some thirty-odd years, I could hardly be described as crazy-keen on the idea of being taken to my first pantomime since I was a child myself. Like circuses, behind the glitter and garish patina my adult self perceived a sinister undertone of cheap, low-brow entertainment – the theatrical equivalent of a seaside postcard. I had a vague, but generalised dislike for panto, and all its hackneyed, predictable clichés.

The production in question was Harrogate theatre’s staging of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ upon which my partner has worked backstage throughout its now waxing season. Through her shared experiences, I have come to better appreciate the hard work that goes into, and the difficulties encountered in, presenting this very traditionally British form of entertainment, and realize its value to the world of theatre.

Most of my prejudices stem from its colourful overcoat, its simple morals, its easily identified good and bad guys – in short, its directness when, as a cultured adult, I expect subtlety and subtext. Panto is to entertainment what sledgehammers are to fine china.

I realize I’m being unfair, criticising from an educated adult’s perspective, when its target audience is a little shorter and a lot less tiresome. As a child, I was taken to amateur productions at a hall in Storth, in southern Cumbria, where my grandfather was stage manager – he had also previously worked as stage manager at a theatre in Kendal, but before I was born. I have fond if somewhat unspecific memories of the experience, the overriding of which was that I wanted to be involved. And that, I’m told, is why pantomime is a vital cornerstone of British theatre – it raises awareness and interest from a young age. It’s easy access for something that is normally viewed as intimidatingly high-brow and unapproachable by many. For some, it will be their only visit to a theatre.

I sit writing this in a dressing room backstage – bald polystyrene heads stare blankly at me while Belle’s golden ball gown hangs behind my seat, a wicked witch pops her head in to say hello – listening to the second act of a Saturday afternoon performance before I attend in the evening. The insights I’ve gained are invaluable in understanding this strange culture, that seems to survive on a kind of nervous energy, always one drama away from complete disaster. So far, this production has suffered broken-toed dancers, leaks and flooding, fire alarms, power cuts that closed the theatre, and a cast member’s wife going into labor. But, as the saying goes ‘the show must go on!’

The correct side of the stage, a few hours later, in an auditorium that is alternately rowdy and hushed, as the audience joins in with every boo, hiss and call of ‘behind you’ or ‘oh, no it isn’t,’ I find myself, against all instincts and expectations, enjoying myself. It’s a professional production, that has spent wisely on sets, props, costumes and effects rather than a washed-up bunch of barely-celebrities. The principles are all professional actors* and clearly relishing the chance to ham-up and let loose. It’s nice to see that they are enjoying themselves as much as the audience.

That, in a nutshell, is where I was wrong. It’s fun and harmless, and you tend to forget that the older and more distant from panto you get. Its familiar conventions come back to you like riding a bike – the cross-dressing, the slapstick, the bad jokes, the double-entendres – and you find yourself making the appropriate responses as if they were part of your genetic code. Pantomime is an indelible part of our culture, and we should all be glad it’s alive and well.

*Famously, Sir Ian McKellan placed appearing as a pantomime dame high on his list of the acting benchmarks he wanted to reach, which he achieved in 2004.

Beauty & the Beast is on at Harrogate Theatre until Sunday 15th January.

All photos copyright Karl André

About stuartjamesbox

I'm a 30-something graphic designer, employed by a large newspaper and magazine publisher, but a writer at heart - only one who struggles to find the time or motivation to sit at the keyboard and bash keys in a pleasing order. I'm a progressive, liberal, atheist. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but some people are just plain wrong. I love books, films and music, and if you only like one kind of anything you don't like them at all and seriously need to broaden your horizons. I can cook, bake, and play guitar to various degrees. I have an unhealthy obsession with fonts; vintage clothing, especially tweed; cats of any variety, except pointy, skinny ones and ones with flat faces. Follow me on Twitter @ Stuartjamesbox


4 thoughts on “There is Nothing Like a Dame

  1. “Panto is to entertainment what sledgehammers are to fine china.”.

    No. It’s like the sledgehammer that stops dead a millimetre from the china. Done right, that is. Which is why you need folks involved who can see the complexity required to make it look so crude. There’s a reason there’s a very limited repertoire of pantomimes. There’s a whole hell of a lot to get right and trying to do a whole new story at the same time would put it beyond human reach.

    Posted by Anonymous | January 11, 2012, 12:00 pm
    • Oh, I agree wholeheartedly, and well put. As with anything, there’s a varying degree in quality. I’d rate the one I went to see as very, very good, although admittedly it’s the first I’ve seen as an adult. Some others can be more slapdash than slapstick.

      Posted by stuartjamesbox | January 11, 2012, 12:41 pm
  2. Just going to copy an internet post I made today, it’s not a direct response to the (very good) blog, but maybe you’ll see where this is going.

    “So yeah, there’s this other member of staff, she’s old, nice woman, I think the company took pity on her because the school she worked at closed down and was too old to get teaching work and too young for the scrapheap, and some schools don’t do supply (whatever)

    She sits right behind me and converses with the woman over the other side of the desk. Well, when I say ‘converses’, I mean ‘she witters while the other woman says ‘yeah’ a lot’. Today was just an unbroken stream about pantomime.

    – “Oooh I love panto me”
    – “I love the panto me but I saw some of the prices for the panto and I thought oooh that’s too much for panto, I mean thirty quid for panto, that’s expensive isn’t it”
    – “My sons are a bit embarrassed about my love for panto”
    – “They took me to the panto for a treat but they wouldn’t get up and sing, that’s what it’s about, the panto, it’s meant to make you laugh, I love all the songs at the panto me, ooh, I do.”

    This probably sounds mean but she is nice, makes a good brew, but the word ‘panto’ deflected off the back of my head about 100 times today, no exaggeration.”

    Posted by keepanopenmindorelse | January 11, 2012, 7:38 pm
    • Panto. Panto. Panto. Panto. Does this help?

      Thirty quid for a panto is a bit steep. I know this is a bit of a plug for Harrogate theatre, but they were kind enough to provide the photos for this article. Their prices were £11-£16, I think. Very reasonable.

      Posted by stuartjamesbox | January 11, 2012, 7:47 pm

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