Michael Coveney: Ding dong merrily in panto and classic kids' shows
'I'm unrepentant in my love of pantomime, the greatest theatrical genre we have'
Christmas looms, far too early, and Biggins is in Peter Pan in Southend, so all's probably well with the world (oh no it isn't: David Hasselhoff is the Captain Hook). The mania we subject ourselves to, all tied in with commercial enterprise, inside and outside the theatre, is more alarming by the year. But, hey, Cats at the Palladium (already banking over £6m, reportedly, at the box office), has probably received a further boost by Nicole Scherzinger's, ie Grizabella's, boyfriend, Lewis Hamilton, winning the Formula 1 world motor racing championship in brilliant style in Abu Dhabi last weekend. And the first night probably won't be disrupted (as the very first night at the New London was) by an IRA bomb scare.
I love everything about Christmas, when it's Christmas. But our seasonal lunacy sometimes makes me yearn for the Paris-style Yuletide which begins and ends, virtually, with a Christmas Eve dinner. The French don't even send Christmas cards - something I do religiously; it's the best way of keeping in touch with people you don't see from one year's end to the other's, and I always write a personalised message or poem - but New Year's cards instead. Still, I'm unrepentant in my love of pantomime, the greatest theatrical genre we have, arguably the only one, in all its glory, glitter and cheesiness. It's our link with the the great days of music hall, burlesque and commedia dell'arte, as well as the rich literature of the Arabian Nights, Grimms' Fairy Tales, medieval morality plays and cracker mottoes.
And most of our seasonal shows for the very young - tomorrow's audiences, the future of our theatre - are derived from children's literature. I've road-tested three in the past week, two of them accompanied by my three year-old granddaughter - but only one of them relates to "real" pantomime. That's the ever popular Cindermouse at the Little Angel puppet theatre in Islington, where Lyndie Wright (who co-founded this delightful venue in 1961, with her late husband) is still chipping away at wooden blocks to create a world of manipulated magic and charm. Lyndie's grandson (his father is film director Joe Wright) was making his Cindermouse debut, too, in the audience of little'uns and yummy mummies.
Cindermouse is Cinderella, sort of, with a twist: Cindermouse's father is a clockmaker whose twelve o'clock chimes send her speeding from the Prince's birthday party where her two mousy sisters, Melissa and Miranda, have embarrassed everyone, though not themselves, with extravagant carrying-on. The party is a real mouse house party, with acrobats and stilt-walkers, and an orange lion manipulated by puppet mice... there's even a complement of ballroom dancers done by a simple rotation device bearing yet more nicely costumed mice. My favourite childhood treat at Christmas were pink sugar mice; this lot were good enough to eat, too.
"Children, always, are the best audience"
Puppetry, they say, was taken to a new level by War Horse, and they may be right. But I absolutely loved the prancing wooden reindeer in Raymond Briggs's Father Christmas at the Lyric, Hammersmith, where the re-build continues apace before the grand spring re-opening (which, Sean Holmes tells me, will recapitulate the entire Secret Theatre programme after Bugsy Malone). The show is a brilliantly conceived low-tech take on Briggs's comic book account of Father Christmas's Christmas Day, from grumpily waking up to having his breakfast, flying over the rooftops, getting stuck in a chimney and grumpily going to bed again.
It's the quotidian detail of his routine with a puppet dog and cat, and in his kitchen, that the three-year olds love and recognise. The reindeer are a couple of manipulated heads at first, until the garage doors open and they take off into the night sky, six inches off the ground! The adaptation is presented by Pins and Needles, who have produced seven shows for younger people these past five years. Vic Llewellyn (who alternates in the role with Ayckbourn stalwart Barry McCarthy) is a loveable old grouch in the fur-lined red jacket, never patronising the audience, taking the show slowly, and the audience with him all the way. And there's ingenious musical accompaniment and sound effects from Kate Adams sitting in the sky.
Live music is sadly missing from Tall Stories' popular take on Room on the Broom by Gruffalo authors Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, playing a season at the other Lyric on Shaftesbury Avenue. The taped soundtrack imprisons the actors in their songs, and Yvette Clutterbuck as the witch follows suit by remaining trapped inside her very good Joyce Grenfell-ish performance (no wart on her nose, though); she doesn't give out enough to a young audience, who are bursting to join in but don't, really, until the end.
More good puppetry, though, by the cast wielding the animals who join the witch and the cat (Emma MacLennan) on the journey to the moon and altercation with a dragon: there's a fluffy dog, a bright green bird, a cool dude frog (who finds the wand in his pond, check it) and the fiery Welsh dragon himself, accorded a full orange skin as befits his status. The others all team up in the mud costume to give him a terrible scare. Nice one. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'll put on my own seasonal glad rags and join the other silly grown-ups at the proper pantos: if nothing else, shows at this time of year reinforce the essential child-like quality of all good theatre and teach us how to renew our relationship with the art form; children, always, are the best audience.
For more info on this year's pantos, visit our dedicated panto page