If you have ever wondered why the British people relish live theatre so much and nurture the writers and actors to go with it, you probably don't know what a "pantomime" is. Ask any of us where we first discovered and were excited by theatre-going. Our eyes will mist, even as we laugh and remember our childhood and that first trip with the family to see a Christmas show of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk or whatever fairystory was being retold onstage that impressionable year long ago.
In my youth every town had its panto, often more than one, that toured or stayed put in the local big theatre from December to Easter, starring popular comedians and singers (though rarely actors) in a farrago of theatricality. The familiar tale would be told through jangling verse and music, with the audience joining in, thanks to a song-sheet dropped from the flies. With children, their parents and their parents' parents out front, all age groups and tastes had to be catered for. So the dads would be charmed by a chorus of leggy dancing girls and a cross-dressing hero, Prince Charming done up in the shortest of tunics and the tightest of fishnet stockings. The kids could marvel at the inevitable transformation scene which, like much else, was a remnant from Victorian pantomimes, although actual mime and characters inherited from commedia del arte have long since dropped away. Slapstick scenes remain and there is much broad comedy centring on the Dame character, usually the hero's mother, played by a man in a way that makes it always obvious that she is a man in a frock. That's my part in Aladdin, one of the favourite pantos, whose mother is Widow Twankey, a single mother running — who knows why? — a Chinese laundry in old Pekin.
Describing all this to Kevin Spacey, director of the Old Vic Theatre, who has never seen a panto, was as tricky as explaining the rules of cricket but it all becomes clear, I assured him, in performance. So many disparate elements of theatre are on display — magical scenery, dance and song and rhyme, cross-dressing, audience participation, soliloquy — often stretching back to Shakespeare and the origins of western theatre tradition and yet unique to Britain. Apart from to Canada and Australia, pantomime has not exported well.
One thing is certain, pantomime is not a static art form. We often regret that it is not as it used to be, but that is in part its point. However ancient the story, for example, modern references abound, often as jokes. Aladdin, in the original Arabian Nights story, was born in old Baghdad, so we will hope to cast an actor of Muslim origin this year at the Old Vic, although a sly suggestion that his mother is the widow of Saddam el Twankey, "last seen holed-up in Tikrit" may not survive! That will depend on Bille Brown, our author, who has written a previous panto for actors like me, The Swan Down Gloves, one of the Royal Shakespeare Company's biggest hits 25 years back.
Meanwhile, I am doing my scales and at the back of a cupboard recently caught sight of the tap-shoes I bought during the New York run of Amadeus in 1980 — Ian McKellen, June 2004