Scottish Panto is still the best!

It’s a great year for pantomime in Scotland. STAGE LEFT enjoys three shows in Perth and Glasgow.

Hiya Pals!

It’s panto time – again. 

I love panto. I loved it when I used to helped make it happen, years past, at the Citizens’, Glasgow. I still love it now, when all I do is watch, laugh, shout and sing along.  

Pantos that are truly Scottish – oh, yes they are!

Scotland has developed its own panto tradition, glorious and popular, with straight-to-the-audience style, smart-but-daft gags, over-the-top costumes, music, simple morality tales and larger-than-life characters. And stappit fu’ – stuffed – with broad Scots patois.

I’ve just seen three splendid examples of the quintessential panto, one at Perth Theatre and the others in Glasgow, at the Tron and the Oran Mor.

Both Perth’s Jack and the Beanstalk and The Wizard of Oz (Tron) are directed, written by and star a man as the dame  – Barrie Hunter at Perth, Johnny McKnight in Glasgow. Both shows fondly respect the custom of a family entertainment with jokes, songs and a heartwarming story.

They are bright, colourful adventures where good thwarts bad. In Jack and the Beanstalk the good is green, its sets’ verdant foliage and snowy peaks (Middle Perth, naturally) menaced by the evil Baddie (panto doesn’t do subtle).

The Wizard, too, is awash with light amidst the storm, its smart design and bold costumes adding to the joy as Dorothy Blawna-Gale, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Wummin find the goodness inside themselves to get back home to Tronsis (we’re not in Kansas any more).

At the Oran Mor, Rab Hood and the Sheriff of Shettleston is written and directed by Morag Fullarton, Scotland’s prolific princess of popular panto productions at A Play, a Pie and a Pint. It’s a brilliant hour-long distillate of comedy, music and sharp political zingers. Rab Hood, of course, steals from the Rishi to give to the poor.  

There are more laughs per minute than ever – this being Fullarton’s sixth original Christmas creation, having wowed the mostly adult audience with classics like The Lying Bitch and the Wardrobe and Cinderella – I Married a Numpty.

These irreverent, noisy spectacles are rooted in their community. You’re “at your aunties”. They’re hoaching with local allusions. Oran Mor references Byres Road and Waitrose. The Tron, a few miles to the east, takes a swipe at the trendy West End and when Dorothy faces a scary, horrible place, she’s not afraid – after all, she’s been to Asda in Toryglen! 

Taking the fun seriously

For all its sense of fun, a good panto is not a flip, makeshift affair. It should have first-class script, sets, costumes and performances. In each of these three shows, you can tell, from the audience’s engagement, that the team takes it seriously.

From a theatre’s point of view, the pantomime has to do well for 3 reasons.  

First, it’s the best way of getting people to come to theatre who otherwise wouldn’t. For thousands of children – and grown-ups – it’s their first, or maybe once-a-year, chance to see a live performance, an introduction to an imagined world.

Second, it’s often the main source of box office income, helping to support the running of playhouses the rest of the year. As public subsidy of the arts is likely to be squeezed further, they’re going to need a sure earner even more. 

Third, it’s fun!

Keeping it lean, but not clean

With panto, financial necessity can be the mother of theatrical invention.  

When I started at the Citizens’, the panto (in 1979, Puss in Boots) had a long-established format of 9 principals, 7 chorus and 4 musicians in the pit. 20 performers on the payroll for nearly 2 months? Unthinkable for most theatres nowadays!

We honed the numbers down in the eighties, starting with Babes in the Wood (written by John Byrne, with a memorable cast of 10 including Roger Allam, Robbie Coltrane, Pat Doyle and Gary Oldman as Daniel the Dog).

There’s a line-up of eight in Perth’s Beanstalk; the Tron is even leaner with seven and Oran Mor’s Rab Hood has just five actors on stage.

Bodily functions get healthily aired. At Perth, it’s not the beans that make the stalk grow tall – it’s Maggie Moo the Coo’s magic poo. Our grandson, 8, was even-handed in his verdict – he liked The Wizard of Oz for the fart gags but Jack and the Beanstalk for its poo jokes.

Let the people sing!

The showbiz maxim: “Always finish with a song” surely applies to panto. And what a great Scottish tradition – everyone yelling “Bring Doon the Cloot!”. At Perth, the cloth with the words glides down from the flies. The Tron, an ex-church with no flying system, makes do with a banner bearing the lyrics. On the pocket-sized stage in Oran Mor, also once a church, it’s “Unwind the Blind!”, and we all join in with the raucous chorus.

You can’t beat – or follow – the audience singing along, at the top of their voices.  Just time for the walk-down, curtain-call and home. And on to the next performance.

The audience participation, the hoorays and boos, isn’t just a bit of fun, it heightens the solidarity and engages us in the moral outcome of the story (“Children, will you all shout out together and help Jack?”). Imagine it happening in other dramas – as Hamlet contemplates suicide in his famous soliloquy, we could all cry back: “To Be, Hamlet, To Be!”

Lots more pantos to enjoy

My panto fix isn’t quite done – there’s still the Citizens’ Little Red Riding Hood at Tramway to come.  Other shows around Scotland include Beauty and the Beast, at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre with Elaine C Smith as dame; the main offering in Edinburgh is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the Festival Theatre, the King’s being closed for redevelopment. In the same city, the Royal Lyceum is presenting A Christmas Carol.  

Elsewhere, Charles Dickens’ classic has become commonplace. In London, there are at least twelve stage adaptations, including the Old Vic, the Bridge, the Rose and Leicester Square.  There’s even, at the South Bank Centre, Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol.

None of them can surpass the best version ever – The Muppets’ Christmas Carol. To mark its thirtieth anniversary, the movie is screening in filmhouses again.  We’ve made a party booking.

Yet something will be missing in the cinema: that wonderful heady feeling only a live theatre can give as the panto comes to an end. There we all are, singing at the top of our voices, warm, together and – for a couple of hours at least – not a care in the world.

Paul Bassett

Glasgow

December 2022

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