It is equally bizarre that panto as a form continues, when so many influential people (especially critics, and I include myself) detest it with such vehemence. How do all these innocent babes become indoctrinated with the stock-in-trade conventions? Can anybody remember, at their first panto, not knowing to shout "behind you" or not loving that insinuating character called Buttons? And yet, walk into the Hackney Empire at 10.30am on a grey, cold, weekday, and you can be in no doubt as to how panto takes its hold. The first thing that hits you is the hubbub: as you approach Frank Matcham's beautiful auditorium, you know it's full to bursting, but on entering there's a strange sensation that, despite the noise, there's nobody there. This is because every one of those 1,000 seats is occupied by a person so small their head barely reaches the top of their seat-back.
Taking your seat gives you an idea of what it must be like to be a water molecule in an electric kettle at the point of boiling. The jiggling around, the barely contained energy, which explodes into one sustained screech when the band switches from its soothing medley into the jazzy opening number. Witnessing this unrestrained joy, cultural theories about the fairy-stories and their symbolic meaning crumble. Certainly the pantos reflect back some of the grimmer realities that contemporary children face - parental abandonment, abuse, cruelty from a single parent's new partner, the longing for love. Rosemary West was, after all, the archetypal wicked step-mother.
In Hackney, though, the whoops of delight are occasioned less by unconscious recognition than by the lavish costumes, bright lights, and a real sense, in Susie McKenna's version, that the whole enterprise is for the express enjoyment of the children. Both Nicola Duffett as the Fairy Godmother and Gael Johnson as Cinders have a wonderfully easy familiarity with the audience, and while Ben Onwukwe makes a somewhat pallid prince, well, he's hunky and well-intentioned and we've all seen him on telly.
Lionel Blair's ritzier version in posher Richmond, however, is a totally different affair. Sure, the costumes are even more sparkly, Hugh Durrant's painted backdrops are lovely, the troupe of tap- and ballet-dancing young lads and lassies are highly polished and yes, OK, you get real ponies pulling the coach. But only half of it is intended for the children - the rest, they hope (and I wonder how right they are), goes straight over their heads to trigger the parents' repressed, innuendo-ridden, Middle- England sense of humour.
The young dancers wear twirly skirts which embarrassingly reveal their knickers when they pirouette, but you know damn well that's just what the director intended. As Buttons, Blair is a little old and a little too louche to make his purported love for Cinders anything more than faintly sinister. It's all summed up at end when Blair/ Buttons calls for children out of the audience to come on stage and sing "The Birdy Song". "No - that one's a bit big," he says, rejecting one poor child in favour of a "little sweetie". So while the chosen few go glowing home with carrier- bags full of chocolate, others are inconsolably sobbing in the aisles.
The answer, however, is not the wholly worthy panto. These can be as depressing and patronising as the most commercial type. Pop-Up and Red Shift's Hansel and Gretel doesn't quite fall into this category, though it teeters on the edge. There are no sparkly dresses to be enjoyed here, but instead a salutary piece of cultural exchange. Young Harry travels to Kiev with his scholar dad to research Ukrainian fairy tales, and learns some educational facts along the way about Ukrainian traditions and how they suffered there during the war. Not a lot of excited wriggling here.
London Bubble's offering is Aladdin, which has been given a commendably anti-materialistic message by making the genie who can grant any wish a dangerous figure. Aladdin virtuously choses to allow himself only three wishes to limit his own potential greed and megalomania. There are pyrotechnic effects aplenty, good songs and, as a measure of the panto's success, the last 20 minutes were completely drowned out by the shouts and cheers of a large school-party.
BAC cleverly went for a back-to-basics approach, commissioning a play based on the original Grimm tale from which our saccharine Cinderellas derive. Here we have a wonderfully dark yarn of a bereaved King Rufus, who wants to marry his own daughter because she is the only woman as beautiful as her mother, and of a scheming Queen Regent desperate to get hooked to Rufus before she loses all power to her nephew, soon to come of age. Unfortunately Peter Oswald's poetically fanciful text is wildly in need of editing, and that, combined with some dubious acting, makes its two- and-a-half-hour duration a tough proposition for adults, let alone their offspring.
For good, old-fashioned, intelligent fare, which will stimulate adults without insulting children, Alan Bennett's adaptation of The Wind in the Willows at the Old Vic is hard to beat. The Theatre Royal in Hackney has a solid tradition of good, clean, child-oriented pantos and The Jungle Book at the Young Vic has been praised on these pages.
For adults, there's a dearth of all-star West End pantos this year. Instead, the fringe is offering a number of seasonal entertainments, notably K Carney's brilliantly juvenile Santa Stole My Giro, which sees Tiny Tim and Bob Cratchit rematerialised to a 1970s TV studio where they must take part (disguised) in Eric Batey's infamous Mr and Mrs quiz show. Jokes about arses and masturbation abound, plus the chance to shout "behind you" at an accomplished cast.
Even Anthony Nielson, the bad man of new writing, has mellowed into writing a play without a single anal rape in it. The Night Before Christmas is a divertissement about one of Santa's elves who turns up in a toy warehouse. These two offerings are the perfect fix for panto-dependent adults. So do the decent thing - indulge yourself, by all means, but don't perpetuate the vicious circle by getting your kids hooked.
n 'Cinderella', Hackney Empire to 6 Jan (0181-985 2424). 'Cinderella', Richmond Theatre to 27 Jan (0181-940 0088). 'Cinderella and the Coat of Skins', BAC to 13 Jan (0171-223 2223). 'Hansel and Gretel', Lyric Hammersmith to 6 Jan (0181-741 2311). 'Aladdin', Albany Theatre to 6 Jan (0181-692 4446). 'The Wind in the Willows', Old Vic to 24 Feb (0171-928 7616). 'Jack and the Beanstalk', Theatre Royal Stratford East to 27 Jan (0181-534 0310). 'Santa Stole My Giro', Old Red Lion to 6 Jan (0171-837 7816). 'The Night Before Christmas', The Red Room to 23 Dec (0171-813 9653)
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