So where did we leave off? Oh, yes, Shakespeare as panto. How about we use that as a starting point to consider this – can panto be Shakespeare?
It should work, shouldn’t it? They after all share a tradition. If we’re saying the socioeconomic egalitarianism intrinsic to Shakespeare’s writing is the same inherent classlessness of our beloved pantomime, surely it’s not that much of stretch to say that Widow Twanky’s generous double frontage is on par with Juliet’s nurse; that the transvestism of the principal boy and panto dame echo the cross-dressing proclivities of the Shakespearean actor in the same way the panto’s message of good triumphing over evil recalls the convention of Elizabethan morality plays.
And do you know what? The more NOTBAd plays with this idea, the more we like it, appealing as it does to our huge potential for wanky pretentiousness.
We like it up to a point, that is. A professional point.
Because – and we’re going to be frank with you, so be strong – amateur pantomime is often inescapably meh. It can’t help it; it’s not its fault. It’s not like it does it on purpose just to be annoying. It’s simply the nature of the beast. If you gather together a cast ranging in age from five to eighty of limited acting skill/swallow reflex and dress them from a wardrobe containing more flammable and fraying costumes than Primark on a sale day, well. Results are bound to be patchy, aren’t they?
We know what you’re thinking; you’re thinking, “I suspect NOTBAd isn’t a massive fan of amateur panto. There’s something in the tone that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it hints of a weariness arising from long over-indulgence, a thumb sketch in words of how a full-up cat looks right after it’s cleaned out a nest of mice then sees one it missed and goes, ‘Bloody hell, no. I couldn’t possibly.'”
Well, yes. But again, up to a point.
Community theatre brings to the panto mix something which professional theatre can’t, and that’s personal familiarity. There’s nothing an audience likes more than watching someone they know throw all caution to the wind and make an arse of themselves for their entertainment. It’s chummy. It has heart. It draws the ties of the whole community a little tighter, not just those directly involved in the production.
However. Professional theatre companies understand that every panto, whether it’s Sleeping Beauty or Puss in Boots, needs a fairy-dust sprinkle of Shakespeare. It needs skill, attention to detail. Yes, it relies upon custard pies and double entendres, but these are the cherries on a cake underpinned with strong narrative structure in a script that has to keep moving or die… um, like a shark or something. Panto demands whip-smart comic timing and enormous flexibility from the actors.
Put simply, panto is surprisingly difficult to do well.
With many of our region’s amateur dramatic companies currently in rehearsal for their own festive productions, the Great Panto Schism of 2010/2011 is brought to mind – also known as the Spittalgate Scandal.
A disgruntled member of the Spittal Variety Group wrote to the local press last year expressing dismay at the arrival in Berwick of its very first professional panto (Aladdin, Little Wolf Entertainment) and his annoyance at what he saw as The Maltings’ betrayal of community theatre groups. You see, up until this point Spittal Variety Group had something of a monopoly on the town’s panto market, and there was a fear that Little Wolf’s production would steal the lion’s share of the audience.
In fact, it had the opposite effect. Bookings for SVG’s 50th anniversary production of Cinderella went up. The correspondent had failed to grasp something that the ticket-buying public had grasped instinctively: that amateur and professional pantomimes sit independently from the other; they are completely different experiences and, as such, an audience has separate motivation for going to see them.
This year two local theatre groups have sensibly chosen scripts written by professional panto scriptwriters. Alnwick Theatre Club will be performing Treasure Island – The Pantomime! written by Alan Frayn, while the Spittal Variety Group is putting on Dick Whittington and His Cat by Peter Denyer.
Now, the Duns & District Amateur Operatic Society is a community theatre group with a panto reputation. In recent years, Euan McIver – a professional actor with long experience of pro-panto, having worked with the likes of Stanley Baxter, Jimmy Logan, Patrick Fyffe and Una McLean – has taken the helm come panto-time and written and produced some polished thigh slapping. This year, however, Euan is taking more of a back seat, leaving the D&DAOS’s production in the hands of Peter Lerpiniere, writer/producer of their Goldilocks and the Three Bears. (If that name is ringing a bell, cast your mind back a few years when Peter was a stalwart of the Emergency Services Panto.) Personally, NOTBAd loves their ambition. Whether it pays off though remains to be seen.
Dates for your diaries then, because there are only 68 days left ’til Christmas after all:
*Goldilocks & The Three Bears, D&DAOS, Duns Volunteer Hall, 24th–26th Nov ’11
Dick Whittington & His Cat, Spittal Variety Group, The Maltings Theatre, 17th–22nd Jan ’12
Treasure Island – The Pantomime, Alnwick Theatre Club, Alnwick Playhouse, 21st Jan ’12, 24th–28th Jan ’12
And for those of you who want to enjoy the professional experience on your doorstep without having to schlep to either Edinburgh or Newcastle, NOTBAd is delighted to see the return of Little Wolf Entertainment to Berwick for their second year, this time with Sleeping Beauty (The Maltings Theatre, 14th–29th Dec ’11).
If you want to be thoroughly entertained while supporting and feeling part of your local community, am-dram panto trumps the professionals every time. But if you’re looking for pure escapism and suspended disbelief, only professional panto will do. Luckily there is always room for both…
Don’t say it. Just don’t bloody say it.
* If anyone from D&DAOS is reading this and would like to let our readers know where they can buy Goldilocks & The Three Bears tickets, drop us a line and we’d be happy to publish the details.