Before I start this blog I want to stress that I'm not a philistine. I love drama, I love musicals and, more than anything, I love seeing new audiences being brought into the fold. There's a communal magic in a theatre that brings me back three or four times a week, either reviewing, supporting friends or, more often, just to have a great evening.
But, for a number of reasons, I've never wanted to see a pantomime.
Some of these factors are merely practical – spending a couple of years of childhood abroad, having parents with long working hours and the fact I lived quite a way away from city centres all meant that my theatregoing was somewhat limited.
But, beyond this, pantomimes just never felt as though they'd be, in a word, worthwhile. They always struck me as cheesy, and while a bit of cheese here and there is all well and good, especially in these gloomy days, two and a half hours of the stuff can just make you a bit sick (as I've learnt from many a cheese board encounter). They also felt outdated, too traditional and, from the sounds of it, repetitive. Less ‘it's behind you', more ‘it's beneath me'.
Upon hearing of my lack of pantomime experience however, my editor saw the opportunity for redemption and correction (and a blog...) so packed me off to Hammersmith to see Jack and the Beanstalk. The results were, in a word, splendid.
In more than a word, the spectacle left me feeling like I'd missed out on something for the last two decades. Yes, it was stuffed to the brim with cheese, served with a side garnish of terrible jokes, but there was something strange going on in the auditorium. For all the garish Britishness and set pieces, it didn't take long for me to start joining in with the sing-a-longs, the call and repeats, or bellowing at the top of my voice when a giant angry goose popped up from behind some scenery. The actors were loving it too, with more corpsing onstage than even the bloodiest conclusion to a production of Hamlet.
A lot of this was helped by the wonderful turns in the show – Vikki Stone, doing a super pseudo-Partridge impression as the malevolently scene-stealing villain Fleshcreep, or Kayla Meikle's Daisy the cow able to hold the audience in the palm of her... hoof?
But what was perhaps most exciting was seeing spectators band together and enjoy the show, be they four or four score years old. For many youngsters, this – as a recent blog points out – is the first time they come to the theatre, and hearing these kids shouting and enjoying themselves can never be a bad thing.
Coming out of the show I left with two main thoughts. The first is how political panto can be – for such a traditional medium, it is rooted in the here and now, using and ridiculing modern celebrities or politicians to tickle the crowd. In the Lyric's case, it also made some explicit swipes at the modern policies towards social housing. Though rooted in the past, it only lives by drawing on the present.
The second thought was that how surreal the whole experience was. Having a sing-a-long, a pantomime cow, an evil villain who cackles lightning, some of the worst puns imaginable, none of these things should work. But together, and with the right mindset, it comes together like a well-oiled machine. As Kraig Thornber, the resident panto dame put it on the night, ‘these jokes only work if you believe in them'. Well, consider me a newly converted believer.
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