Features Published 2 December 2015

Pantomime: The Purest Form of Theatre

Jon Bradfield, who writes the annual panto at Above the Stag, discusses the validity of pantomime as an artform.
Jon Bradfield
Tinderella: Cinders Slips It in. Image: Photosbygaz.com

Tinderella: Cinders Slips It in. Image: Photosbygaz.com

Boys and girls, I’m feeling the pressure a little. I’m going to paraphrase Exeunt chief Natasha Tripney most unfairly here, but the brief for this piece was, in essence: would you like to write something that persuades me and the other theatre hipsters at Exeunt HQ not only is panto not the ITV 3 of theatre forms, but that it might even warrant the sort of consideration normally reserved the likes of Ostermeier’s hot take on Charlie’s Aunt, or the Yard’s Naked Boys Walking About 2, or Camden People’s Theatre’s forthcoming stage version of Summer Holiday (book by Jack Thorne, additional music by Jamie XX).

Cripes.

And it’s not only tricky, it’s possibly something of a poisoned chalice. I write a panto each year – for grown-ups, and somewhat “boutique” – but still, it’s definitely panto. And we sell out. This year we’ll sell out 50 performances. So we don’t need the higher-brow reviews, and indeed, do we really want a seat that could have been occupied by a happy paying punter taken up by someone speculating what Anya Reiss might have done with the story?

Well yes, dammit. I’ve an ego and it wants to be cuddled. So instead of telling you that if you come to Tinderella: Cinders Slips It in you’ll hear the rudest love song to grace any stage this year, I offer a few thoughts about the validity of pantomime as an artform.

Panto is live. Really live. Chris Goode offered the “cat test” of whether a performance was truly live, namely: if a cat wandered into the midst of the event, could that event accommodate the cat without breaking down. Panto would not only accommodate a cat, it would tickle its belly and carry it around for the audience to stroke. The event wouldn’t break – it would become more solid, more itself. More… real.

Pantomime characters exist in two worlds simultaneously: the world of the story and the world of the audience. And, for all that this underlines the artifice of theatre, by some alchemy it actually makes those characters realer. A show that spends two hours reminding you of its fictionality, yet draws “ahhh”s and cheers at the dénouement has something to teach us about what theatre is. About the inherent power of story.

Panto is honest. While often spectacular, its designs look like nothing more than they look like theatre scenery. The aesthetic steers well clear of gritty realism, without become either austere or abstract. And unlike most theatre, pantomime acknowledges the presence of the audience. It makes them complicit. When we ask an audience to help our good fairy make her spell, on some level are we not also alluding to the nature of theatre itself – the willing collusion in story telling and make-believe? Panto says hello to its audience members at the start; it bids them farewell at the end. I don’t say that all theatre should do that, at all. But occasionally I think it would be nice if it did. If Ibsen’s An Enemy of The People can involve a whole audience, as at the Barbican last year, there’s probably not much that can’t.

Panto is relevant. Or at least, it is political and topical, and it always has been. In spite of its fairytale romances and exotic locations, its simultaneous existence in the world of the play and the world of the audience allows for ideas and references that would feel clunky inserted into other theatre. That’s not a new thing. In 1874, The Hornet magazine wrote that “the politics of the pantomime are the most important indications of the politics of the people”. A survey of pantomimes and the responses to them across the decades offers, as Anne Witchard has written, “an informal chronicle of the age.”

Like the Lewes bonfire night celebrations, with their contemporary effigies for burning, pantomime is a riotous, timeless, populist entertainment with room for a sharp contemporary sting. And there’s a similar subversiveness: it is an annual take-over of our hallowed venues by a theatre form that acknowledges both itself and its audience with a big, false-eyelashed wink. As Susie McKenna, the long-standing writer and director of Hackney Empire’s pantomime, said to me recently: while much is made of pantomime’s roots in commedia dell’arte, its strongest influence is music hall.

Indeed, panto witnesses a takeover of theatre spaces by a bigger and more diverse audience. Thousands of kids who know Cinderella from the Disney movie will this year watch a young black woman in the role at the Lyric Hammersmith…

But: let’s not climb too far up that particular beanstalk. There’s a limit to how much I can claim for panto on progressive grounds. With its proscribed roles and conventions it can be a conservative beast. The V&A’s Simon Sladen – a walking database of everything panto – recently pointed out to me that pantomime has been late to embrace racial diversity compared with television and film (Hackney Empire is an exception – and has been rewarded with black audiences travelling down from Birmingham each year, who perhaps feel a greater connection with the East London show than they do with Birmingham Hippodrome’s big commercial number).

And I’ve just written a long piece for Attitude, the monthly mag for confirmed bachelors, which looked at the representation of gay people in panto. With so many openly, famously, gay celebs about, there has been a trend for the larger pantomimes to slot them safely into either side-kick roles or even “good fairy” parts. To treat them as the exotic “other”. I can see why you’d ease Gok Wan into a show as the “man in the mirror” in Snow White – but Joe McEldery in that role?  Which is why I love putting gay heroes and romances front and centre in our pantomimes, albeit only for adult audiences. But that’s not all we bring to it. I hope that the reason we draw audiences back again and again – the reason we get groups of 60 returning– is because we invest as much thought and care and imagination into our shows as any creative would. We lace allusions and themes through our scripts; we pull the stories in new, hopefully illuminating directions – try writing the “ugly sisters” into a pantomime without being struck by the sheer misogyny of the concept and wanting to challenge it! We question the nature of story-making itself: why doesn’t Buttons end up with Cinders? “Because”, as we tell him, “it’s not your story this time.”

Christ, I’m making it sound dull. It’s funny ok? Properly funny. And, as my writing partner Martin Hooper says, “for two hours, you can be a child again. Through our shows I’ve introduced pantomime to people from Spain, Portugal, South Africa, Australia, France, the US and elsewhere. They love it, and come back the next year.”

And, as I’ve mentioned, this year’s does feature a spectacularly rude love song.

Tinderella; Cinders Slips It In is at Above The Stag Theatre, Vauxhall, until 16th January.

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