Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A serious treatise on the English mythological interactive folk drama tradition

Oh no it isn't.

If Colin Baker is singing “Let's Do The Time Warp Again” (*), in green make-up, accompanied by a large amount of white smoke, a dozen pre-teen dancing girls (dressed as devils) and two adult ballet dancers, then it follows that either

a: You are reading a more than usually dubious piece of slash fiction or

b: You are attending Bath Theater Royal's annual production of “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Poor Colin. We're half way through the second act before there's any hint that he might have once appeared in a TV show which the kids would have heard of. Eventually, when he needs to bash down the door to the giant's castle, he whips out his sonic screwdriver. When that doesn't work, he hands someone his sonic mallet. (“When I nod my head, you hit it.”) Time was he wouldn't have been allowed on the stage until someone had gone through the “Knock knock?” “Who''s there?” “Doctor...” routine.

He is playing the giant's evil henchdemon, and therefore has to exchange rhyming couplets with the good fairy. His performance is every bit as subtle and nuanced as the the one gave in "Doctor Who" i.e not. But he relishes every corny line. “Did you find the gypsies' camp?” “No: as a matter of fact I found them rather butch.” Before the inevitable, luvvie-ish appeal on behalf of the Variety Club of Great Britain, he assures us that we've been “the best Saturday night audience we've had all week!”

How to describe a pantomime to a person who has never seen one? You know the sophisticated Italian commedia d'ell arte, where skilled mimes wittily improvise stock characters in traditional situations? We'll, it's nothing like that. A Christmas entertainment for children “of all ages” they must, at some time in pre-history, have been lavish dramatizations of fairy tales. But a Dawkinsian process of copying and re-copying means that you can no longer quite see the shape of the original story. Does the fairy tale lack a stock character? Then one can be invented: Jack the giant killer has acquired an idiot brother called Simple Simon, and is followed up the beanstalk by a pompous king who has fallen in love with his mother, Dame Trott. (Chris Harris has been playing dames in Bristol and Bath pantos for as long as anyone can remember. It's him, not the minor show business personalities, who's the evening's main draw.) The Dame is so poor that she must sell the cow. Cue a slapstick routine in which the cow refuses to be milked, tries to sit on the milking stool, apparently makes rude smells and finally provides a litre of semi-skimmed in a plastic carton. (“Why are you waving that milk in front of your face?” “It's past your eyes milk.”) Jack takes the cow to market; no-one will buy it. Cue several credit crunch jokes. The cow is too dirty to sell. Cue a song and dance cow-washing routine.

Lewis Bradley – Jack – came third on a reality / talent show called “Any Dream Will Do”: I suppose this makes him minor royalty. He's actually rather good. But it's a safe bet that when he was ritually intoning “I want this...I want this so badly” to Andrew Lloyd Weber, singing “I am a moo-cow cleaner” to the tune of “I Yam A Zider Drinker” wasn't precisely what had in mind.

But still, the general structure of the tale can't be deviated from. A peddler must swap Daisy for some magic beans. (The peddler is Colin, which would make no sense in terms of the story if anyone were actually following it.) As surely as night follows day, Jack's mum must throw the beans in the garden, and Jack must climb the beanstalk.
The castle at the top of the stalk turns out to be inhabited, not only by a giant but also by various ghosties and ghoulies. Jack doesn't want to be caught by the ghosties. His brother doesn't want to be caught by the....“We try that joke every single year” says the Dame.

I don't think pantos were quite so scatological when I was small. ("There's a stool coming" says Simon, before fetching something to sit on while milking the cow.) I don't think that a Dame, while dressed as a Viking (you had to be there) would have done quite such filthy things with her horn.
But the topical references are perennial. In the end, the giant falls from the beanstalk and is killed, and everyone celebrates. “And even better news – he's fallen on Trowbridge!”

I am not saying I would like to go every night. As a matter of fact, I am not saying that I would like to go every year. But there is something unquestionably joyful about watching adults behaving like silly kids for two hours. (Also watching the actual kids: the little ones who think that yelling “behind you!” at the ghosties is actually going to make some kind of difference; the slightly bigger ones who are too cool for this kind of thing but still laugh at the poo jokes.) I'd forgotten how genuinely funny a perfectly timed pie-in-the-face routine can be.

(*)It's the hippy shake that really drives you insane. Apparently.