Saturday 17 February 2018

Stage: Look behind you! It's the pick of the pantos

Relaxed feel: Alan Hughes (middle) as Sammy Sausages in Beauty and the Beast at The Tivoli
Relaxed feel: Alan Hughes (middle) as Sammy Sausages in Beauty and the Beast at The Tivoli

Maggie Armstrong

Panto is back - complete with glow-sticks, Tayto promotions, out-of-work celeb actors and hacks reverting to the usual battered clichés (oh yes we are!). The month sees a snowball effect of family theatre, as fairytales and myths are revisited and remixed for Christmas consumption.

But why should we care? Because at panto the adults of the future have their first memories of theatre burnt into their little minds. They should be good memories. And if they can bear the aggressive camp of it all, panto is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shout at a stage.

Whether this winter can bring anything new is a radical proposition. The goodie-baddy, princess/prince charming stereotypes are so well established, it's hard for that dog to take on new tricks. But here are a handful of shows with sure-fire heat in their heels.

Little Red Riding Hood, The Gaiety, Dublin

This mega-selling bauble, going nearly 150 years, guarantees a spectacle - if you get the right seats. Your correspondent had plum press ones, but sent a delegate of under-10s to the gods, which they found a bit buried away in backwaters of the 1,500-strong house. When the fourth wall opened and the panto dame poured through the auditorium, they could hear the shrieks but see little for themselves.

Not much is added to the fairytale, and a full-grown Red Riding Hood's sylvan walk to her grandmother's house is stretched out until it might snap, over two hours. What holds things together is 'Dame Panto' Joe Conlon, successor to Twink, whose common touch sprays pure fairy dust. Show-stealers were the three pigs, blown up as Midwest hillbillies with enormous bums, and Little Bo Peep as a thick-accented culchie. In moral instruction, the theme of elder abuse did spring to mind when the grandmother was beaten up by the Big Bad Wolf. Afterwards, the grandiose extent of spilt ice cream and crushed crisps suggested a good time was had by many.

Beauty and the Beast, The Cheerios Panto at The Tivoli, Dublin

Across the city, a more intimate time can be had at the The Tivoli. There is an egalitarian feel in this one-level, 500-seater venue, without inner circles or pompous balcony seating. Husband-and-husband team Alan Hughes (Sammy Sausages) and Karl Broderick (writer) have been whipping this up some 20 years. Rumour has it this panto is so relaxed that when Alan forgot his lines last year, the night only got better. It happens, says Alan.

"We don't try and hide it. Someone else on stage will give you your line or walk to the stage manager and get the script and make laughter out of it. The audience love it."

In this more restrictive venue, the producers look to LED-lit clothing, rather than pyrotechnics, to spark magic. Show-stealers, according to Alan, are the daddy dance at the end, in which all dads are invited up to shake their stuff, and the traditional dancing in the aisles finale.

Little Light, national tour

With Little Light, Monkeyshine brings us a "refreshing alternative to some of the Christmas shows", says the diplomatic Jim Jobson, co-artistic director in the company. This street-style show inspired by Nordic myth is led by an astute girl child, Lucia ('little light'). Living in the snowy mountains where the sun won't rise, Lucia (Emer O'Carroll) decides that the sun has been stolen and takes on a quest to reclaim it.

She sets off with a cat, a piece of bread and a tinder box into the icy hills where she encounters a lair of trolls she must outwit.

"There's a nice empowerment," says Jim. He says the company has never been afraid to explore fear.

"We all had the darkness, the monsters under the bed, the places in the house we'd never go. But we respect the child. We make sure we resolve these fears for them, we don't leave them hanging. Children need to know what that balance of good and evil is." (Playing in Tipperary, Castlebar, Newbridge, Dun Laoghaire.)

Sleeping Beauty, University Concert Hall, Limerick

In a new Sleeping Beauty production at the Bristol Old Vic, genders are bent and 'beauty' is a boy, and the reviews have been intemperately good. At Sleeping Beauty in Limerick, writer Karl Harpur is keeping it country. Keith Duffy charm-offends as the king, panto veterans Myles Breen and Richie Hayes lead and Leanne Moore takes on the princess. She may be typical, but this is a robust heroine, says Karl.

"The princess is not allowed to leave the castle until her 21st birthday but she breaks free - she wants to see the world. She really grabs the initiative."

This panto is for a multi-generational audience, says Karl, who takes inspiration from The Simpsons, Shrek and Toy Story. "There is as much for the adults, and sometimes more, to be honest, than for the kids. I don't have kids, but I write as if I was a father or a mother being dragged to a panto. Would I want to sit through this? I always like looking at the dads and the mums during the show to see their reactions. I want to see if the jokes land."

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