Theatre Critic and Journalist

Genius in the lamp: What makes the perfect panto?

Genius in the lamp: What makes the perfect panto?

Published in The Guardian, 01.12.2011

“Hello boys and girls,” bellows Shaun Prendergast at a rehearsal room wall in the Lyric Hammersmith. The reply that comes back, from the assistant director, is a lethargic groan: “Hello Widow Twankeeee.” The last syllable tails off limply. It’s 10 o’clock on a Friday morning; hardly the time for giddy call and response.

However, even in rehearsal, a pantomime needs an audience like a puss needs boots. Routines must be built around potential interjections and patter takes practice. Accordingly, anyone sat watching is cajoled into joining in. Today, designer Tom Scutt grudgingly volunteers himself as birthday boy and receives a hearty Happy Birthday chorus from the cast. I get the impression it’s not his first “birthday” of the week.

Not even observers escape. Prendergast catches sight of me: “That must be a Lyric Hammersmith shirt. Very small checks.” Badum tish indeed.

It’s an old gag and though it’s corny, it works because it’s brazenly so. Prendergast, described by director Steve Marmion as “a gag machine-gun,” is a self-professed comedy geek and owns a pair of Eric Morecambe’s glasses. Widow Twankey is only his second stint as a Dame.

When he auditioned for Sarah the Cook in Dick Whittington last year, Marmion was so impressed by his string of 30 quickfire one-liners that he co-opted Prendergast on to the writing team. The two clicked instantly over a shared enthusiasm for old-school jokes and vintage routines.

“Pantomime is all for the audience,” says Prendergast, “It’s not there to show you how clever the writers are or how clever a concept is. It’s there to give you a really good time in the theatre.”

Marmion agrees: “The glee of panto is really infectious, so it’s absolutely pointless fighting the form or trying to do something clever with it. Embrace the form and do clever things within it.”

So, though Aladdin goes from looting to Lady Gaga, it is, at base, a traditional panto. “People have dubbed ours an urban, modern, alternative panto, but that’s what panto’s always been. In 1870-odd, the first one contained contemporary pop songs rewritten for the purposes of the onstage action. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” says Marmion.

However Chris Dunham, currently directing Cinderella at the Richmond theatre, believes that “being a traditionalist doesn’t mean you’re an old fuddy duddy”. While the tradition itself is important to him, it’s there to serve the story. “It’s got to be played for real and it’s got to live on its own terms. You have a responsibility. You can’t fart-arse about.”

That responsibility is to the audience, particularly those coming to the theatre for the first time. Marmion feels it as well: “Absolutely. You mess this up and that might be it for that person’s relationship with theatre.”

Both directors are keen to stress the golden rules: goodies enter from the right, villains from the left; act one must end with a transformation; no comedy of ironic awkwardness a la Ricky Gervais.

Marmion has another: the question “What’s my motivation?” always gets the answer “It’s a panto.” It’s there to prevent unnecessary fussiness. Quite simply, there isn’t time. At three weeks, rehearsals for Aladdin – the Lyric’s third pantomime since artistic director Sean Holmes brought the form back to W6 – are half the length of a standard process.

Richmond’s Cinderella, which stars Gary Wilmot and Jenny Eclair, have only a fortnight in rehearsals and even that is “an absolute luxury”, according to Ugly Sister Graham Hoadly, whose only Christmas off work was spent in hospital with double pneumonia. Some pantomimes, he says, are put together in a single week.

Such short rehearsal periods necessitate a “divide and conquer” approach, says Marmion. It means that everything happens simultaneously. At the Dance Attic Studios in Fulham, Dunham has acting, singing and dancing rehearsals taking place across two rooms, with costumes being adjusted and receipts being filed in various corners. “It’s a bit like school,” says Wilmot who’s playing Buttons, “You have an hour in one classroom, learning French, then go for another lesson elsewhere.”

It helps that Dunham has a number of panto veterans up his sleeve, and several of his cast are well into double figures. He had the whole show blocked by the morning of day two, which left only filling in the gaps: choreography, songs, routines. Most of his cast have done the routines before: “People will say, ‘Oh I’ve always done it this way,’” the director explains. “Actually, we’re doing it the way I want it done. Even though it’s a routine, you can’t just walk through it.”

At the Lyric, where no cast member has more than two pantomimes under their belt, they’ve got to investigate each on its own terms. It is, says Prendergast, a methodical process of fine-tuning. “We pick each scene apart and see how it works and how it can work better. Stuff gets rewritten. New gags are added. The gags are analysed, they’re sharpened and buffed.”

This makes for a particularly high gag-rate. Where they’re getting things serviceable and shipshape in Richmond, in Hammersmith it’s got to gleam. “Our ambition is quite simple,” continues Prendergast, “To be the best panto in Britain.”

He approaches his character – and the dame, he stresses, must be played as a specific character; Twankey’s a widow, Sarah the Cook’s childless, the difference is crucial – with the same precision. “You’ve got to play the truth of the text as you would with Shakespeare, Pinter or anything else.”

Mind you, neither The Caretaker nor Macbeth needs their jokes punctuating with a well-timed bosom-hitch.

Prendergast has a theory about the dame: “She’s there as a parental paradigm. You’ve got this very generous, loving, big-breasted woman supported by a strong, silent man. I think that’s what a child wants in its emotional life, so the dame’s task is to make the audience feel safe enough to regress to a childlike state. You’ve got to make them want to almost cuddle into your bosom.”

This, it seems, is the key to panto: it must win over the most diverse audience in theatre. Marmion explains: “Panto’s got to work for three generations simultaneously: the kids, the parents and Nan. They all sit in the same row and they’ve got to laugh at the same jokes.” Elsewhere in popular culture, he believes, only The Simpsons and The Muppets come close.

So, when a man in a dress hollers “Hello boys and girls”, he’s talking to us all, no matter how old.

Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>