A couple of years ago, there was a big posh pantomime renaissance in central London - think of Aladdin, and Stephen Fry's Cinderella at the Old Vic, as well as the Barbican's extravaganzas. This seems to have passed, but there are three pantos in the West End this year. And two of them are aimed at adults.
One of them is our show, Dick Whittington – Another Dick in City Hall, which plays at the Above the Stag theatre in Victoria. Meanwhile, Sinderfella (which started at the Stag last year) plays in the basement of the Leicester Square Theatre. Further afield, the Brighton Pavilion maintains its tradition with Peter Pansy in February, while the Drill Hall has a camped up, lesbian take on A Christmas Carol (following the gay version we staged there two years ago).
It make sense that the torch is being held aloft by gay adults. When we started writing adult pantos, we found it wasn’t just the smut, but the whole shouting out, booing and cheering aspect that people loved. And the morality. There is good and evil. People love seeing that played out, to reconnect with right and wrong. Look at Question Time. Especially now when we’re all looking for an enemy to blame. It’s better to shout at King Rat than to join the BNP.
We wanted to make Dick Whittington not just an adult panto but a grown up one, too. (Though it is adult. Very. Writing filthy jokes might not be up there with cancer treatment or hostage negotiation, but it’s what we’re good at.)
But it’s also grown-up. It’s magical, but grounded in reality (which makes it sound like Britain’s Got Talent). It has a proper love story. It’s satirical: our King Rat doesn’t only want to stop Dick from becoming mayor, he wants to become mayor himself. He’s a reckless banker, an expenses-fiddling political climber, a ruthless landlord. And Dick, rather than being framed for a robbery, is complicit in his own downfall. Panto stories are such archetypes, you can really play with the details.
It means a lot to write a “gay” pantomime. The legends and fairytales in pantomime are one of the first experiences of theatre we have as kids, our first exposure to love stories. Those of us that grow up gay, we haven’t had those romantic stories – they’re always heterosexual. Stephen Fry broke new ground by hinting at a gay relationship in his Cinderella. But we want to put a gay love story centre stage. And maybe satirise the expectations of the gay scene too. It won’t stop other people enjoying it. But they might have to ask what a few of the words mean...
Famous pantomime scribes Stephen Fry, Mark Ravenhill and Jonathan Harvey are gay, as we are. Maybe it’s because they are stories about the underdog (Cinderella or Snow White) or the hero that must tread his own path (Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington).
We enjoy writing for the dames the most. They are a cousin of the drag queen, but it’s not the same thing. Gay men do often have fixations about women who don’t quite fit in. Whether it’s because they seem strong or vulnerable. There’s probably a psychoanalytical word for that sort of identification, and the pantomime dame is a mixture of the strong and weak, the glamorous and grotesque, the dignified and the brazen, the male and the female.
When we were auditioning our Dick Wittington cast, Peter Kosta, who is directing, explained to actors that we were “taking pantomime back to its roots, back through Comedia del Arte, right back to Aristophanes”. That’s not just grand-speaking. Aristophanes’ comedies poked fun at everyone from the gods to the man on the street. They were satires too, mocking political figures and events. And, they were rude. Bawdy jokes and fake phalluses filled the stage.
Peter says “it was the Victorians who took this sort of theatre and sanitised it. It became a very diluted entertainment, made safe and for children. Most mainstreams pantomimes relate back to that Victorian style”. We’re bringing it back into the gutter, and we hope people will join us there.
Dick Whittington - Another Dick in City Hall runs at Victoria's Above the Stag Theatre until 20 December 2009.