I am fascinated by that strange British theatrical phenomenon called the Christmas pantomime. It’s a glorious holdover from the 19th century, featuring a traditional story outrageously sent up, a “principal boy” (the hero) played by a woman in tights, one or more “dames”, played by men in dresses, candies for the kiddies, ribald jokes intended to go over the heads of the youngsters, singalong songs, nasty villains introduced by firecrackers, elaborate dance numbers, and shouts of “look behind you!” and “oh no it isn’t.”
Last night, we went to the Hackney Empire to see their version of Puss in Boots, a traditional British Christmas pantomime. Hackney has a very mixed demographic, including Blacks from the Caribbean, Turks, Kurds, Asians (many from Vietnam), and artists. In other words, the kind of community that we like.
The Hackney Empire, has deep roots in its community. Originally a magnificent Music Hall, it fell on hard times and spent a couple of decades as a TV studio and another couple as a Bingo Hall. Threatened with demolition in the late eighties, it was rescued and rebuilt as a theatre.
It has been famous for its pantos. This year, it was Puss in Boots. Puss was played by a wonderfully charismatic Jamaican actor know as Kat B. (No Principal Boy, sigh.) He insisted that whenever he said “Puss” we had to holler “in boots dem”! The entire cast was mixed, and families were too. The usurping Queen Talulah the Hoo Ha is a Jamaican momma, with a spineless white husband and a milk-white spoiled brat of a daughter, Princess Pertunia. Dame Nettie Knowall (white) has a dame daughter, Amnesia (black). Nobody worries and everyone has fun. There’s also an evil witch and an ogre, who is really a prince. My other favorites, after Kat B (the Puss) was Amy Lennox as Princess Pertunia, who had the most amazing spoiled brat body language, and Sharon D. Clarke, Queen Talulah, who can own any stage she walks on. Local references abound, starting with the Kingdom of Hackneyonia. The connection between the community and the acting company was tangible, and gave a lift to the evening. I believe that the supporting chorus was drawn from young people in the neighbourhood. Hats off to Susie McKenna, who has been writing and directing these Hackney pantos for fifteen years. (I know this, because we went on the last night, and she received flowers and made a speech.)
I was hooked on pantomime by my first panto, a smart, sassy, crisply political version of Dick Wittington performed at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Joan Littlewood’s theatre (though after she retired). Like they say about drugs, I’ve been looking for that thrill ever since. One Christmas in London, I dragged Judith to about twelve Pantos, always assuring her that the next one would be wonderful. Too often, the principal boy was a boy, usually a TV personality, and the snap and sparkle that I remembered just wasn’t quite there.
One year, we did see a remarkable play called Poppy, at the Half Moon, based on the conventions of Panto. The thigh-slapping principal boy, his lady love, and his friends go off to confront the evil Emperor of China, whom we were instructed to boo and hiss. Their mission: to compel him to reopen the opium trade. As the play goes on, it becomes harder and harder to cheer for our British heroes and boo the Emperor, particularly when the lovely heroine becomes a grotesque opium addict in a wheelchair. A brilliant deconstruction of the form, but not really a panto as such.
I’ve always wanted to try my hand at a panto, and this Christmas I pretty much got my wish. Scroogissimo at Artword Artbar had many of the elements: a send-up of a traditional story, singalongs, magic, a Dame, outrageous jokes (including some groaners). Interestingly, the main character is the villain, “Ebenezu Scrugi”. The ghosts of Past, Present and Future, all played by women, were three “principal boys”. Most people would not have noticed the association with panto, but I had some fun with it.