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One big pantomime

Philip Key on the enduring popularity of theatre's most profitable outing and who's putting the bums on seats this year

Published on November 16th 2009.

One big pantomime

LIVERPOOL theatres are gearing up for their busiest - and, hopefully, for them, their most lucrative time of the year.

I forget the number of times a small boy in the audience is given a name check from the stage only for a voice at the back to shout out: "He's gone to the toilet!" That small boy seems to attend every pantomime.

Christmas is the time when those who don't normally go to the theatre actually shift themselves from loafing in front of Simon Cowell and head off for a spot of live entertainment. The family pantomime.

Times have changed a wee bit and today they will find some alternatives to the traditional slapstick. The Liverpool Playhouse, for example, is offering The 39 Steps, a comic version of John Buchan's stiff upper lip thriller, rewritten by Patrick Barlow and directed by Maria Aitken. The show won an Olivier comedy Award in the West End and has been recast for Liverpool with four actors playing 139 roles.

Then there's the positively anti-panto. The Royal Court Theatre has a new comedy, Merry Ding Dong, by Fred Lawless. It The tale of neighbours warring over football allegiances comes with a warning in its publicity leaflets:"This play contains strong language and is not suitable for bleedin kids who will spend the entire time running round the place, shouting, eating sweets and being sick. Merry Christmas."

But fear not panto fans,you will find the tradition more or less intact at the Liverpool Empire, Liverpool Everyman, Southport Theatre, Floral Pavilion, New Brighton and elsewhere.

It's a theatrical format that refuses to die.

The tradition according to some theatrical seers can be traced back to the Ancient Greeks but the panto we see today really began in the late Victorian age and was later influenced by British Music Hall.

Just why it remains so popular is a bit of a mystery but one I intend to solve here.

For one thing, it can be continually updated as the Everyman found in creating its own formula, the rock and roll pantomime.

It pinched the idea from one of its own shows, Return to the Forbidden Planet, in the early 1980s, in which rock and roll numbers were incorporated into a science fiction script based on an old B movie which was itself based on Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Why not put rock and roll numbers into a pantomime where, as with Return, the cast played and sang the music on stage? The result was a hit and a formula which has continued and has been copied by others ever since.

The Southport Theatre has always had a traditional pantomime but the Empire has, in recent years, dabbled with musicals. Now it has returned to the well-tried format.

The problem has always been trying to get big enough names to do these shows. Many of today's stars have thought it was a little beneath them, particularly the big name pop stars.

It was not always so. I was introduced to panto (and theatre) in the 1950s at the London Palladium where Arthur Askey and David Whitfield appeared together in Robinson Crusoe and both were major names in their day.

Now Americans have found a new lease of life in pantomime. Mickey Rooney, for example, is doing pantoe in Britain again, and the Empire has attracted Henry Winkler, star of the American TV series Happy Days where he was the epitome of cool as The Fonz. He is playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan with Natasha Hamilton in the title role and Les Dennis, back for his second year, getting into a frock for the dame part.

Now those two sex changes - Hamilton as a boy, Dennis as a woman - is a typical panto tradition with principal boys generally played by women and dames by men. It is a curiosity we happily accept. After all, it's Christmas. Just as we accept actors dressed as cows, horses and cats, singalongs, cobwebbed jokes, slapstick, double entendres and enthusiastic audience participation.

It would not be pantomime if we, the audience, were not allowed to shout out "Behind you!", "Boo!", "Hooray!" and "Oh no it isn't!

We even leave behind our critical faculties. You will notice that in most pantomimes something goes wrong: the dame's wig comes off, lines are forgotten and scenery wobbles. It adds to our enjoyment, so much so that pantomime people regularly makes things go wrong on purpose.

I forget the number of times a small boy in the audience is given a name check from the stage only for a voice at the back to shout out: "He's gone to the toilet!" That small boy seems to attend every pantomime.

It is the comfortable feeling of the familiar that makes the panto such a pleasure. Even if the jokes are well-worn to the point of antiquity. Typically, one character will accuse another of being "one step away from an idiot", a phrase today only heard in panto. The gag is that the other character next to him takes one step back. Believe it or not, people still laugh.

Panto may feature ham acting, old fairy tale plots and questionable dialogue but it is that sense of belonging in an audience that, I suspect, makes it work so well. We are part of the show on stage, a theatrical experience where we can loosen our stays, allow our braces to dangle and let ourselves go. Oh yes we can.

*Local pantomimes include Peter Pan at the Liverpool Empire (11 Dec-3 Jan). Dick Whittington at the Liverpool Everyman (28 Nov-23 Jan), Jack and the Beanstalk (with Ian 'H' Watkins from Steps and Marc Bannerman from EastEnders) at the Southport Theatre (10 Dec-3 Jan) and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (with Pete Price and Pauline Daniels) at the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton (19Dec-10 Jan).

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