Sunday 17 December 2017

Why your beloved Pantomime will never really be 'behind you'

Little Red Riding Hood at the Gaiety
Little Red Riding Hood at the Gaiety
Beauty and the Beast at the Tivoli
Al Porter’s Freezin’ at the Olympia Theatre
Kirsty Blake Knox

Kirsty Blake Knox

Say what you like about Widow Twanky, the dame has got some serious staying power.

Since the 1800s, pantos have managed to entertain, provoke and delight audiences.

And why wouldn't they? Pantos are a tack-tastic wonderland where audience members are encouraged to wave glo sticks in the air, buy Maxi Twists during music numbers, dance in the aisles and hurl abuse at a man in drag - or Linda Martin.

"Pantomime is all about leaving you inhibitions at the door," veteran performer Alan Hughes, aka Sammy Sausages, explains.

Unlike conventional theatre shows, groundlings are not required to sit quietly in a darkened auditorium and quietly appreciate a writer's witticisms or a director's "vision". If you want that, go to the Abbey. Panto is a camp, cheesy delight and, for many, the ultimate guilty pleasure.

"There is nothing pretentious about panto," the Olympia Theatre's grande dame Al Porter explains.

"You'll never have an actor ask 'What's my motivation?' The only motivation we have is to pay the rent."

The secret to panto's success is its malleability. Yes, it's tied up in hackneyed music hall tradition but every year the script is rewritten to incorporate current trends, zeitgeists and responses to cultural shifts.

For example, this year Bristol's Old Vic Theatre has decided to kick against 'patriarchal traditional fairytales'.

Sleeping Beauty won't prick her finger on a spinning wheel - oh no she won't! Instead, that will be the fate of a prince named Percy, who ends up being saved by a heroine.


The Old Vic has also replaced the fairy godmothers with the achingly PC-sounding "Wise members of the Women's Institute".

"You start afresh every year," says Porter, who co-wrote the script for the Olympia's panto 'Freezin'. "So you can tie in all the local news and jokes."

There are essential 'Panto Dos and Don'ts'. For example, irony is out, double entendres and slapstick are always in.

Heroes enter stage right while villains enter stage left. A singalong and elaborate chase scene are a necessity. Costumes must be garish, and drab dialogue can be instantly lifted with a well timed bosom hitch.

Clearly, this is theatre that unashamedly panders to grown-up and younger audience members.

It is packed with in-jokes, shout-outs and celebrity guests.

This year, the Belfast Opera House has asked 2005 'X Factor' star Chico to appear in 'Snow White', Limerick has got Keith Duffy on board while the Olympia has enlisted Dustin the Turkey.

"Having a famous face adds to the glamour," says Alan Hughes, who has been performing in pantos for 21 years. "It's a tough slog, you are doing two shows a day for five weeks, but I couldn't stop - I love it too much."

Thankfully for Hughes, panto shows no signs of slowing down.

"It's a bit like 'The Late Late Show'," Porter says. "It shouldn't work. A lot of the time you're thinking 'What the hell is going on here? Why am I watching this?' but you can't look away."

Irish Independent

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