Why Panto Never Gets Old

Jane Hardy examines the ever-evolving and ageless tradition of Christmas theatre through some of Northern Ireland's current offering

We may think we know a bit about the origins and resilience of pantomime, the quintessential Christmas theatrical genre. You know, it's supposed to be a reworking of the Italian 16th century commedia dell'arte, with a deal of cross dressing, fluid identities, incredible costume, an overarching narrative about Good versus Evil - and some risque, maybe even slightly political jokes thrown in for good measure. And it may be wholly or partly in verse.

While some of that history is true, oh, no we don't! Or at least not totally, since panto survives by evolving, reflecting aspects of our popular culture and holding a gilded, kitsch mirror up to our era. 

If you're old enough to have been a kid in the '60s, you'll remember the moment pop stars started to litter the stage come early December. I saw Adam Faith, no less, in London doing his What Do You Want (if you don't want money?) top 10 hit with that engaging musical catch in the throat in a pop version of Aladdin. Dames were played by the likes of comic genius and TV star Les Dawson and all you needed to get theatre tills ringing was a good telly name or two.

In other words, the enthusiasm for an older, music hall style genre had given way to the Gogglebox age. Which meant that glitz, i.e. celebs and endless TV and pop references, outplayed the older characters and style of delivery. This affected the music and indeed the language, as catchphrases superseded the quaint language of the fairy godmother and the (female) prince.

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As times change, the panto narrative has changed. We now want ancient and modern, TV references and magical figures plus respect for the storyline and the song and dance routines, not to mention the sheer silliness of the form that allows us all to channel our inner five year old.

Belfast has rolled with the times, introducing some pretty decent celebrities in recent years, including the great Basil Brush who Arf-arf-arfed and Boom-Boomed! his way to panto heaven at the Grand Opera House in 2014 in a slightly rejigged Cinderella. I interviewed him for the Belfast Telegraph and the guy underneath the fox insisted we did it in character which, as surreal as it may sound, we did. 'So is there a vixen at home, Basil?' I questioned, 'and have you many little Brush cubs?' 'Well, yes, Miss Jane.' You know the sort of thing.

One development in the pantomime genre is the division into grown-up Christmas shows – some of which have elements of the children's shows, some of which emphatically don't - and children's fare. The Lyric Theatre, Belfast, has followed this trend over the past few years of featuring something charming for the kids with something more, er, adult for the grown-ups.

Last year's Christmas Eve Can Kill You by Marie Jones, with the equally comically intuitive Dan Gordon directing, did it for the adults. And Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, with a Tom Waits-style charismatic Wolf in a gothic show was intended for the younger generation. But because it oozed suggestiveness and symbolism channeling Angela Carter, and was genuinely scary, it appealed to the grown ups too. Interestingly, feedback the theatre received did indicate the show to be too much for some of the kids.

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Tim McGarry, who works so hard his head never gets much peace, was instrumental with the great Gary Mitchell in penning some topical, very funny Christmas shows with a little bit of politics at the Lyric Theatre in recent Christmas seasons. The humour ranged from pleasingly infantile sketches on golfing mophead Rory McIlroy to serious stuff on the so-called abortion clinic across the road and entertaining impressions of the great and the not so good.

This year's adult offering is provided by the usually entertaining Grimes and McKee. These comic actors – and writers - who have tickled the funny bone with recent offerings such as GAA satire St Mungo's Luganulk, didn't quite locate the comic bullseye for me this year. There are one or two great ideas, including the vocals of Pamela Ballantine as a jolly hockey sticks God (I've always looked up to her), but it was in effect a re-writing of the greatest story ever told Up Pompeii. Or rather Up East and West Belfast.

That is, of course, why I was surrounded by laughter as audience members recognised the local stereotypes with Mary a wee girl serving behind the deli counter in Centra – a memorable Keri Quinn whose voice can indeed strip paint. Joseph (winning Terry Keeley) is inevitably the downtrodden Belfast boyfriend – 'Not the brightest chisel in the toolbox' as Ms Ballantine trills.

Coarse in places, political but not sure whether it is sending up Trump-ism or terrorism, it meanders. And reflects the current trend in Northern Irish theatre towards the Maggie Muff school of accessible ribaldry, not to mention the secular nature of our society.

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So although we still recognize the story of the birth of Jesus, we don't want it presented straight in the theatre, which after all started out in church when medieval Easter services began to have individual roles sung by different musician-actors). We want it presented humorously, at arm's length. The Nativity: What the Donkey Saw fits right in.

What pantomime always requires, and what another panto influence, the 17th century English masques, had, is pace. Inside the wonderful 19th century Grand Opera House, which must have seen incredible music halls in its day, you get this Christmas the traditional, energetic, magnificent show.

John Linehan's May McFettridge is in rare form, working the room like the pro he/she is. The act, which began when he appeared for fun as an old biddy on cousin Eamonn Holmes' radio show is a triumph, outshining this year's rather good Ugly Sisters. In fact, although May's winning toothless smile dominates any given panto variation from Aladdin to this year's Cinderella, it delivers nonetheless.

Audience participation, costumes, telly names like Gareth Gates off that Britain's Got Talent (didn't someone named Will Young come second - what happened to him?), it's got it all. With bucket-loads of glitz and glamour, this pantomime recalls the 1970s style shows. There are slightly risqué moments, but not too many, and the tone is upbeat and charming while Mark Dougherty does clever musical things with festive hits old and new. The children who go on stage to act out an old gag involving farts, corpse agreeably. And the audience leave with a smile on their face, having witnessed the birth of a star in tiny performer Frankie of the McMaster Stage School.

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And all the children, some aged about four, seem to know the routines. It's never behind us, really, we seem to start out in life wanting to contradict the Fairy Godmother in her ridiculous costume, here involving shiny colanders as an exteriorised Jean-Paul Gaultier style bra.

There is somehow a point to panto, as I realized in the two hour acting out of Cinderella, whose early versions included a dark and erotic 1697 tale by Charles Perrault in which our heroine has to fit her pinkies into a fur shoe. Freudian or what. Incidentally Jayne Wisener as Cinders shines, outsings and outromances Mr Gates who gamely puts up with the Will Young references.

At the MAC this year, there is a return of the deservedly popular, unabashedly naughty Pony Panto as the adult offering, plus many versions of Pinocchio for the kids. Pony Panto, which isn't for the faint hearted but is for anyone who loves a knowing laugh, references that other great Yuletide institution, the office party.

The naughty but very nice troupe of scantily clad men and women have unleashed their brand of comedy dance-theatre for a few years now. The award-winning group, based in Ireland, who may satirise the night when so and so in accounts drinks too much and reveals their desire for so and so not in accounts bears absolutely no relation to The Office episode with David Brent's famous dance except insofar as it uses dance and theatre to totally mischievous effect.

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You get a live band, the popular host Leonie Pony, and a cast that have absolutely no problem letting most of it hang out. Jokes are adult, costumes off the shoulder and pretty much everything else; there is slapstick, there are tricks involving wine glass pyramids, there is gold lame and they do great routines to numbers like The Waitresses' 'Merry Christma's. As Simon Magill, the MAC's Creative Director, observes: 'You'll remember just why Christmas is so much fun.' What's not to love?

Belfast actor Mark Claney is playing his first Widow Twankey at the Old Courthouse Theatre in Antrim with the Mr Hullabaloo theatre company production (directed by Ian Kells) now on and makes an important point. 'The panto itself is the star, I think, not individual characters,' he says.

Although, as Dame, Claney inevitably bears a lot of the comic burden. As always the costumes, he laughs, make this easier. 'You move differently once you've put on the heavy dresses with the boobs and the padding.'

He says that the scenes with the company's young star playing Aladdin have been fun to do, partly because he has tutored Jordan Walker. 'I was his teacher in drama class so we know each other and that helps.'

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Claney's influences include the great Ian McKellan who has said the role he was most thrilled to play wasn't Hamlet or Antony or Falstaff but, you've got it, Widow Twankey. 'I am doing a northern accent,' he adds, saying that that would bring a warmth to the role in a production that is for the kids and not overly risque. 'The accent is based on Gracie Fields.' It should be fun and if you want to compare and contrast, there is another production of Aladdin on at Belfast's Waterfront. 

Pantomime has come a long way and looks set to remain with us as we need cheering up at the midpoint of winter in an increasingly cheerless world. It may be at times politically incorrect, and the role of women isn't 100% modern as Cinderella evinces, but it's familiar, it's warm-hearted and we know that with a wave of the Fairy Godmother's wand, the silver carriage arrives which means that ultimately, things are going to turn out all right.  

For a full list of pantos now on in Belfast and across Northern Ireland be sure to check out Culture NI's Christmas Theatre Guide.