Arts: Panto? Artistic? Oh yes it is

Is Sadler's Wells' decision to stage Dick Whittington a surrender to the onslaught of Christmas spectaculars? Or an attempt to get panto out of a rut?
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The Independent Culture
To the ever-present cacophony of singing and hoofing and tinkling cash that is London's pervasive musical theatre, comes this year's Christmas fortissimo. Yes, it's time for the seasonal shows, the Nutcrackers and the pantomimes, creating a tidal wave that threatens to engulf us all. This showbiz clamour might be sweet if you're a theatre manager or a devotee of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but less so if you're a struggling playwright or an adult in search of something different. And if you're a dance enthusiast, things have never been so bad: the Royal Festival Hall's Christmas dance season is monopolised by the Atlanta Ballet's Peter Pan and the Peacock Theatre is overrun by The Snowman, not to mention the usual eruption of Nutcrackers at the Coliseum (English National Ballet) and Covent Garden (Royal Ballet).

To top it all, here is Dick Whittington at Sadler's Wells, the theatre which reopened just over a year ago as the venue for artistically adventurous dance. So what is artistically adventurous about pantomime, a form honourably descended from commedia dell'arte, but often devalued nowadays into lazy entertainment for kiddies? Not a lot, except that this is no ordinary pantomime. "It's a reinvention," says Ian Albery, Sadler's Wells' chief executive and the show's producer. "The last pantomime at Sadler's Wells was Babes in the Wood in 1995, which was traditional and good of its kind, but not the sort of thing Sadler's Wells should be doing now. What irritates me is when things get stuck in a rut. Pantomime has to move forward and one shouldn't be afraid to put it into a modern idiom."

Albery has long had a bee in his bonnet about this for two reasons. The first is personal: he worked on Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella in 1958 at the London Coliseum, a musical that attempted to break moulds by absorbing a pantomime style; but the same year West Side Story opened, and it was this that blew his mind as being the way forward.

The second is pantomime's two-century link with Sadler's Wells. "It was the theatre's stock-in-trade, presented primarily in summer," he explains. "In the early 19th century Joey Grimaldi, the clown most closely associated with pantomime, performed a great deal on this stage, and lived just round the corner."

And so he has hired a top-notch team: Stephen Clark as writer; Tim Goodchild as designer; and Gillian Lynne (Cats, Phantom of the Opera etc) as choreographer and director. Lynne, he says, started her career at Sadler's Wells, dancing with the Sadler's Wells Ballet (the precursor of the Royal Ballet)."In fact, my father [Donald Albery, the company's manager at that time] got her into the company by forging her papers to make her a year older. I've known Gillian a long time. I was aware she had been at the sharp end of pantomime as principal boy, making extra money in between working for the Sadler's Wells Ballet, and she sees how pantomime has become debased. So we talked about how to put new life into it and change the public's perception."

Consequently this is pantomime with the following differences: action unbroken by front-cloth scenes; an integrated cast that is unlittered by television personalities doing their unimpressive thing; and a suspenseful "will he, won't he" story where sub-plots are woven into the main thread.

"We've started from scratch," says Lynne. "It's more a musical than a pantomime, but with extras - children, magic effects and adventure." The music is atypical. "It is not the awful bits of pop stuff you usually get today," continues Lynne. "It's an eclectic but beautiful mix of existing scores by English composers - Walton, Britten, Purcell, Novello." She has also brought in two classically trained dancers: Ewan Wardrop (recently with Adventures in Motion Pictures) and Jayne Regan, principal dancer with Northern Ballet Theatre, who has worked with Lynne on her various ballets for NBT, including an immensely popular evocation of the painter Lowry, A Simple Man. Wardrop and Regan play the cats that have a sizeable chunk of the action and a pas de deux to Walton's music.

They are impressed by the professionalism of their fellow performers, effortlessly able to combine movement with voice: something that dancers find difficult, not only because of the need of breath control in dancing, but because speech and body often demand different rhythmic patterns. In rehearsal the players go through their paces with that peculiar shallow brightness of pantomime characters. Nickolas Grace plays Grimaldi, who underlines Sadler's Wells historic association with pantomime and celebrates his return - "I've been waiting for this day for 170 years." Dick Whittington is the young Jonjo O'Neill; but no less youthful, slender and straight is Lynne, as gracefully lithe as a junior ballet dancer, long legs encased in tight black velour trousers, hair a fashionably silky blond mop. She looks nothing like her 73 years, or like a millionaire with simultaneous productions of Cats around the world.

As old pros, Lynne and Albery know they can end up with a flop as easily as a money-spinner. But Albery makes no secret of the fact that Dick Whittington is in part financially driven and an attempt to build an audience right across the community. He has long battled to improve Sadler's Wells' subsidy, which until recently came to just pounds 220,000 a year. To put on performances can actually cost a great deal, even with a full house. "For example, we could not give Pina Bausch more than four performances, although she could have sold out for two weeks. But with only 1,500 seats at prices we felt the audience could sustain, we were losing money each night."

Consequently, they have had to cut back. "The programming for the first five months of the next financial year (April to August) is not as dense as before. Instead of 16 or 17 weeks of performances, we only have 12 weeks."

During these gaps the theatre will be entirely devoted to the business conferences and AGMs which already fill the theatre during the daytime, although the audience may not be aware of it.

A few months ago, Sadler's Wells received an increase of pounds 680,000 from the Arts Council and London Arts Board. Given that advance planning is vital, this will only start to make its mark on next year's autumn programming. "Obviously we're thankful for the increase, but even so it is only half of what we have asked for since 1995. There was a tacit understanding that if we re-built the theatre, our needs would be reassessed. We said that we needed pounds 1.5m a year for an international programme bringing in great companies from abroad, as well as regional companies. Our present turnover is pounds 9m, so now we're getting little more than five per cent of our revenue from subsidy, where other theatres get 40 per cent."

Looking on the cheerful side, underfunding has one benefit. "It makes you leaner, fitter and able to fight that bit harder." Which means being more resourceful, so when you learn that London will elect a mayor, then Dick Whittington acquires an irresistible topicality.

But even without that circumstance, Albery would still have gone for Dick Whittington: "Because it ties in very nicely with the City of London which is very good for luring sponsorship." (The main sponsors are the electronics firm Invensys.) And he feels that the show's themes of human temptation and tribulation can be applied to politicians at all times, so that if it is up and running years hence, it will still have the modern imprint of London and its politics.

`Dick Whittington' is at Sadler's Wells Theatre, London (0171-863 8000), 16 Dec to 29 Jan