Sunday 25 February 2018

Mary Kenny: it's behind you!

The life lessons I learned from Christmas pantomimes

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's lovely to see that the pantomime tradition is alive and well and still happening at Christmastime all over Ireland. People have been saying for yonks that the panto tradition is outdated: the Illustrated London News lamented in 1876 that, "Every season convinces us more and more that pantomimes have had their day." But in truth, panto never dies.

Some of the happiest Christmas memories of my childhood are associated with being taken to the pantomime in Dublin, either to the Gaiety or the Olympia, and in the early days, to the Theatre Royal - alas, demolished in 1963. I will be ever grateful to my Aunty Maureen for arranging this annual treat, which seemed to open up a magical world of spectacle, of magic, of music, of story, of live audience interaction ("Oh yes he is!"), of comedy, of ballet, of acrobatics, and of the gender-bending theatre tradition involving a Principal Boy, who was actually a girl with terrific legs, and a Dame, who was actually a man with a salty sense of humour.

I loved every pantomime, but the story of Dick Whittington and His Cat had a lasting influence. The Whittington story is very old: Samuel Pepys mentions it in his diary in 1668. Richard Whittington was a real person, born in Gloucester about 1350, and the panto tells the tale of his journey to London, where, he believed, "the streets were paved with gold". He sets out to walk to the capital, accompanied by his cat, who will prove very useful (the cat is always a great turn). He meets many obstacles - he is harassed, rejected, bullied, and has to serve as a kitchen slave to the evil Baron Fitzwarren (historically, it was a Lord Fitzwaryn). Each time Dick is disheartened and considers giving up, he hears the bells of London chiming, with the words: "Turn again, Whittington!" Keep on keeping on. Never lose heart! Naturally, Whittington eventually triumphs, becomes Lord Mayor of London, marries Alice Fitzwarren, and lives happily ever after (with cat).

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