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How to make a crisis out of a panto

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Oh no they're not: Members of the Nottingham People's Theatre Company in costume for the Christmas panto

Oh no they're not: Members of the Nottingham People's Theatre Company in costume for the Christmas panto

Oh no they're not: Members of the Nottingham People's Theatre Company in costume for the Christmas panto

PANTO . . . now there’s a word to chill the blood.

Brrr! Never much cared for pantomimes as a kid; never much cared for them as a parent, either – the terrible renditions of current chart songs, the knockabout comedy that was never very funny, the tedious topical references aimed at the adults and, worst of all, the hideous stage school moppets wearing terrifying rictus grins like The Joker in Batman, having seemingly cartwheeled from the womb doing jazz hands.

But a dad’s gotta do what a dad’s gotta do, even if one year that meant enduring more than three punishing hours of Twink’s panto (she wrote, directed and was very much the star), complete with frequent interludes to show off her multiple talents, at the old Point Depot.

Christ almighty, you could have watched the whole of The Godfather in that time. To be honest, I think the kids were even more bored than I was, but were just too polite to say so.

There was nothing so grandiose on display in the Storyville documentary Panto! Mayhem, Make-Up and Magic, concerning the efforts of am-dram group the Nottingham People’s Theatre Company to mount a production of Puss in Boots, yet the full complement of backstage theatrical cliches was here: the squabbles, the petty jealousies, the conflicting egos, the diva-ish behaviour, the power trips.

Oh, and the dodgy donkey costume that revealed more of the men inside it than was considered decent. “It’s showing a bit too much of the undercarriage,” said the man playing the back end (always a bum deal anyway, I imagine).

A young stage hand was more blunt. “Those tights are awful – and you can see their balls!” she gasped during the final dress rehearsal. Knickerbockers were quickly pressed into service.

As props malfunctioned and supposedly spectacular pyrotechnics turned out to be piddlingly embarrassing, Jeanie Finlay’s engaging if slightly overlong film found gentle humour and a surprising amount of poignancy in the situation.

What came across most strongly was the importance of amateur dramatics in the lives of the people involved. “It makes me light up,” said a young woman called Laura, who’s always yearned for a career on stage. By her own admission, the combination of her weight and a bad knee rule it out. Am-dram is the next best thing.

Rob, who looked in his late 30s or early 40s, also wanted to be an actor in his youth, but somehow “let the dream slip away”. He was playing the dame here – something he regards as faintly ridiculous, particularly since the last time he set foot on the stage he was playing Macbeth. Rob’s a bit of a method man. While everyone else was worrying about whether their wigs would fall off, he was more concerned with the plot and his character’s motivation.

The stars may have been out front, but one of the stars of the documentary was stage manager Maggie. A seemingly quiet, wistful woman, she transformed into a hard-as-nails tyrant once the house lights dimmed, throwing a full-throttle tantrum over whether or not Puss should carry his sword in the first act.

It would have been easy for the film to sneer at these people and their pretensions. Instead, the film found something admirable, even heroic, in their dedication to their hobby.

It still doesn’t make me like panto, though.

Storyville: Panto! Mayhem, Make-up and Magic BBC4


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