By the time most of you read this Deb and I should be sitting in the Stalls at the Old Vic yelling "Oh no you're not!" or "Hello Buttons!" or even "Its behind you!" at Cinderella, the Ugly Step-Sisters or Buttons. And no we won't have had too much vino at the Fountain, we'll be part of a largely adult audience regressing to childhood at a Christmas pantomime.
Its difficult to explain Panto to anyone who hasn't grown up with it. Its very, very English - though the tradition has carried over to Canada, Australia, in fact anywhere on the map that was pink when I was a kid, even Hong Kong. Its roots go back to popular theatre of the 1700s but it has changed so much that John Rich and Joey Grimaldi wouldn't recognize it today. Over the years it morphed from a Harlequinade preceded by a fairy story in punning rhyming couplets to a fairy story used as an excuse for elaborate stage sets, long-limbed chorus girls and Music Hall turns. In the 90s it seemed to have become the refuge of second banana television performers and would be pop stars. Now its become all the rage with "legitimate" actors, writers and performers. Cinderella,at the Old Vic this year is written by none other than Stephen Fry - writer, actor, director, bon vivant and all round good time Charlie and Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) is playing the Fairy Godmother. And that my dears is Sir Ian McKellen (yes Gandolf as well as the greatest Shakespearean actor of our time) at the left as Aladdin's mother Widow Twankey two years ago at the Vic! Pantos gone all respectable like.
Why Widow Twankey? And why does she run a laundry in Peking? And why does she have an assistant called Dim Sum? Because its tradition! And speaking of Twanks there are other traditions that everyone of us in that audience today are expecting will be observed.
The Dame: There will always be a man dressed as a woman - not the same as a female impersonator, take a look at Sir Ian. This will be Widow Twankey, Jack's mother Dame Trot, Mother Goose, Sarah the Cook or in the case of Cinderella there will be two as the Ugly Step Sisters. The Dame is normally man-mad and has lines that would make a sailor blush - though fortunately they go over most children's heads. And as in the case of Sir Ian, each change of costume will be more outrageous than the last - he had 14 if I recall.
The Principal Boy: In the good old days the Principal boy was a perky-breasted, long-legged beauty in net stockings, high heeled boots and doublet with plunging neckline. She could belt like Merman, dance like Miller and slap her thigh in what was thought to be a butch gesture. Sadly that has given way to Principal Boys being played by .... a boy! Sometimes its a slightly over the hill pop star or a refugee from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical - though more often these days its a good looking man who can sing, dance and cause the hearts of matinee ladies and the chorus boys to flutter. This year at the Old Vic its stage and film actor Joseph Millson (right) and he's required to do a strip tease - my how Panto has grown.
The Principal Girl: The main qualification is that she be pretty and able to sing - Julie Andrews was a principal girl at the Palladium back when she was a teenager.
There are Doubles acts, Animal acts, Singalongs, Audience contests, ghost scenes, laundry scenes, schoolroom scenes, in the introduction the good fairy enters from the right and the demon or villain from the left, popular references are made to local and international events (I seem to recall a line about Tony Blair hiding behind a Bush a few years back.) Songs are sung, dances are danced, good triumphs and unless its really bad the audience has a good time.
Apparantly Fry, being Fry, has written a very erudite script (emphasis on the rude) with some decidedly gay twists. The Prince and his footman Dandini have a shower scene; Cinderella's best friend forever Buttons helps her with make-up tips and accessorising and they share the same taste in men; and when Cinders and her Prince are married in the grand finale, Buttons and Dandini have a civil union. "Oh my dear, sounds ever so gay," as Widow Twankey would say!
I have a feeling we'll all be shouting "He's behind you, Buttons!" And Deb and I will be yelling the loudest.
That's one more shot of Sir Ian revealing the legs that sunk a thousand ships.
17 gennaio - San Antonio abate