There must have been some stratospherically raised eyebrows at the Barbican when the idea was first mooted. You think we should produce a Christmas pantomime, to rival the massively popular revival of Aladdin (starring Ian McKellen) at the Old Vic? OK, let's do it. And whom were you thinking of commissioning to write a funny, child-friendly, tender-hearted and family-centric update of this Yuletide treat? Mark Ravenhill.
Were they off their heads? Mark Ravenhill, the most shocking British playwright since Sarah Kane or Edward Bond, the notorious author of Shopping and Fucking 10 years ago, and Mother Clapp's Molly House in 2001, the man who made anal sex banal - what's he doing in the world of innocent panto fun?
Ravenhill frowns in a wounded way when you voice these concerns. He sees nothing odd in his embracing this cheesy old form. "I'd wanted to do pantomime for ages, just because I used to see them as a kid in Haywards Heath. I've dropped hints over the years, writing articles saying, effectively, 'I LOVE PANTO,' making a Radio 4 documentary where I interviewed lots of pantomime actors... Eventually, the Barbican got in touch and said, 'We're thinking of doing one. Would you like to write it?' "
He put in a lot of homework. "Last winter I went to 10 pantomimes to see how they worked." And he found a lot of chaos. "Because all the leading parts are given their own five- or 10-minute slot, they lose track of the narrative. I sat there thinking, where are we now in the story? I want to include all the routines, the slapstick and jokes, but I want the story to move forward all the time. That's the challenge."
Ravenhill is a big chap with a head like a giant sugar cube, cropped of hair and unshaven of chin. He looks like a bouncer outside a Copenhagen nightclub, but is mildly spoken and skittish. The pantomime he chose to update is Dick Whittington & His Cat, and, reading Ravenhill's script, the first thing that strikes you is how old-fashioned it is. He includes characters such as Fairy Bow-Bells and King Rat, part of the dramatis personae since the 18th century.
"Pantomime is an absolute mix," says Ravenhill with glee. "Some of it goes back to medieval times, like the good-bad fairy stuff, there's the pastiche-Shakespeare rhyming couplets from early Victorian times, then late-Victorian stuff when music-hall stars moved in from the East End. People were complaining that 'Pantomime's becoming corrupted and terribly common!' in the 1890s, just as much as they do now about Pop Idol stars."
The form is, of course, a retirement home for very old jokes, and Ravenhill's Dick, so to speak, is crammed with them. He happily admits that, "a lot of the humour is from 1930s radio, like Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel [the sitcom starring Groucho and Chico Marx]. It's quite legitimate to see a scene that works well somewhere else and pinch it. That's what I like about panto - it's shameless. You can grab things from all over the place. It's not about originality, it's about ingredients and how you lay them out."
What also strikes you is the harmlessness of the script. Subtitled "A Family Pantomime", it contains (to invoke Mr Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend) nothing to bring a blush to the Young Person's cheek. The Dame in this starry production is Roger Lloyd Pack, best known as the gormless Trigger in Only Fools and Horses. His Sarah the Cook is a blowsy, seen-it-all "personal nutritionist" to the rapacious Alderman Fitzwarren, and provides a droll running commentary on the action. Though we're promised, "This is not posh panto. This is mucky as Charlotte Church on a Friday night", the humour remains at the Carry On level of double entendre: after watching Dick the principal boy, played by Summer Strallen, whacking her thigh, Sarah observes, "This the first time we've had a slapper in the family." Ravenhill obviously enjoyed having real performers to deal with, rather than the ragbag of Z-list celebrities that more often than not populate pantomimes. "What's great is the mix of people in the cast. Some have done musical theatre before, like Summer, who was in Guys and Dolls. We have classical actors like Nickolas Grace [the stammering Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited] playing King Rat; we've Sam Kelly who was in Porridge and 'Allo 'Allo. We've lost Roger Lloyd Pack for a few days because he's filming the Vicar of Dibley Christmas special. We've stage school kids playing villagers and sailors. All these people from different backgrounds doing all this physical stuff - slapstick, dances, songs, sword-fights, endless costume changes. They have to learn how to control an audience, how to whip them into a frenzy then calm them down again. It's a full-on job."
But what about the political agitprop? Where is the dark sexual subtext?
"I think it would be boring and obvious to take pantomime and be clever or rude with it," says Ravenhill. "I think it's subversive enough as it is. Disney movies are always terribly moral and - take The Lion King - try to teach you about rejecting or accepting values. In panto, there's never a lesson. It's come out of the traditions of this supposedly Christian and monarchist country, but there's no Christianity or monarchy in it. The only message is that there are weird, unconventional families in the world - the man dressed as a woman, two girls, one dressed as a boy, who've fallen in love with each other, this dithering father figure - and if they pull together they'll muddle through in a typically English way."
Why hasn't he made more of the lesbian undercurrent between principal boy and girlfriend? "It's there already," he says. "They sing a love duet to each other. When you have Summer Strallen, with her great long legs and her leather boots, singing to Alice (Caroline Sheen), who's terribly pretty, it really doesn't need underlining. Some of the pantos I went to last Christmas had so many adult jokes, the kids sat there saying, 'What's going on, I don't understand.' I don't want to write a panto where the kids feel excluded, I think that's a panto that's failed. I want them to have a great time first and foremost."
OK (I persist), given your attacks on Ken Livingstone, didn't you feel duty-bound to roast him in a play centrally concerned with the Lord Mayor of London? "I have a few digs at him, but very delicately. People keep getting his name wrong and calling him Len Kidneystone. But Dick Whittington is a story that celebrates the City of London and the mercantile impulse, and I had to think of what inflection to use. There's no point in rewriting Dick Whittington as an anti-London, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist tirade but I wanted to pull it back from being a Thatcherite story of greed and shopping, about a boy who came to London and was such a good City trader that he became the Mayor. I emphasise the greed of Alderman Fitzwarren and how he learns at the end to be less interested in money and more in humanity."
Before launching his much-abused play Pool (No Water) and delving into the panto tradition, Ravenhill had an exhausting year, travelling all over Europe with his monologue Product. After a try-out in London, it launched in Berlin, and then went to St Petersburg, Moscow, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Portugal, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Bratislava, Dublin, Galway... In the play, Ravenhill, with no previous acting experience, plays a movie producer putting on an action romance about a girl who falls in love with a member of al-Qa'ida who is plotting to blow up Disney World. "She starts as Bridget Jones and by the end is dedicated to the cause," says Ravenhill. "It's a comedy, about us and our attitude to Islam."
He toured with his director and stage manager. "It started when the British Council asked if I'd like to be in their showcase, where they invite lots of international theatre groups to come and see British work. So I did and people started offering to stage it." He grins. "Often, in Latvia or Bratislava, there'd be a council reception and a meal with the ambassador, who'd have had to sit through the play, a bit stiff-jawed at the obscenities. Afterwards, he'd say, 'Very interesting' and sometimes he'd whisper, 'We were warned - so we were fine about it.' "
He's bringing the monologue to London's Bush Theatre in January for three weeks and will then embed himself in his Barbican flat and get creative once more. "That's the scary bit, where you sit down and stare at a blank page." In the meantime, he's reading Edmund White's biography of Jean Genet, the French playwright and jailbird, which may respond to the Ravenhill treatment. But guess what he'd really, really like to do next? "I'd like to play the villain in the next Bond movie. They like villains to be British and slightly camp, don't they? I'm going to get whoever cast the Daniel Craig movie to come and see my show at the Bush. I don't have to be Villain No 1, necessarily. I could be the Rosa Klebb figure."
For all his shock tactics, Ravenhill is a very traditional old charmer. Oh no he's not. Oh yes he is.
Dick Whittington & His Cat, 5 December to 20 January, Barbican Theatre, London EC2 (08451 207 516; www.barbican.org.uk)Reuse content