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