Now, what is pantomime (or panto as they call it)? The answer is pretty simple if somewhat perplexing for the unsuspecting mind: Panto is a theater show taking place in the Christmas season, where a series of stock characters will perform the silliest antics. The performers mainly comprise men in drag and the lines are ridden with lame puns and sexual innuendos. All of this for the entertainment of children and families... Audience participation required
Even if I look behind me at my, now fairly broad, experience of theatre going, I don't think I have ever seen anything like it. The show I went to see was Aladdin at the Old Vic with Sir Ian McKellen (aka Dame Ian McGandalf) playing the Widow Twankey, which was the original attraction for me to be honest, added to the fact that I had never been to panto. I did not really know what to expect and I was totally right in that. The plot, know by everyone, was stretched to its minimum and took the back seat; the occasion being solely devoted to goofyness. We were presented with a series of tableaux, some including dancing and/or singing, most a pretext for the actors to banter at the audience. A few "topical" jokes were heard about a blanket safe pass and fast tracking, some "spacey" figs, one ring to rule them all (this from McKellen) or the fact that a certain act took less than forty five minutes; all this drowned with a very thick lashing of threadbare puns.
The decor (by John Napier) was very colourful (as were the costumes) and by their flimsyness reinforced the impression of amateur theatricals not to be taken seriously, an impression totally contradicted by the high quality of the production and of the perfomances. The boys in the "chorus" were sometimes wearing some very tight outfits which highlighted the...errr...qualities of some very nicely, one could not help but notice! Oh, yes they did!!! As for the principal actors they were very good indeed. Aladdin was played with the (sometimes annoying) boyancy of a kids TV presenter by Joe McFadden with a sexy smile and Glaswegian accent. The villain was played by Roger Allam, very reminiscent of Tim Curry (Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show). As for Ian McKellen, the shock of seeing him in all his various outfits as Widow Twankey was just too much! See for yourself.
Of course this is the first performance of panto I have seen, and I have a feeling I could have chosen much, much worse for my debut. Yes, Panto is about tackyness but tonight proved it can also be high quality performance. Certainly it is it good fun. In the end if I don't find myself any closer to understanding the Brits, who cares? We all know it is part of their charm to be unfathomable for the aptless continental mind. Corset is
Aladdin by Bille Brown
Directed by Sean Mathias
Old Vic Theatre - London SE1
17 December - 23 January
Box Office: 0870 060 6628