Terence Blacker: Watch out, a couple of celebs are behind you

'By the end of the show, the Hamiltons have become poignant representatives of all the fragilities of the year'
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The Independent Online

"Tragicomedy of the highest order." "Thrills and spills at every turn." "You'll laugh, you'll cry – you'll want to die of embarrassment." The critical reaction for the theatrical event of the year has been mixed in extreme, but all those who experienced 2001: The Pantomime have agreed on one thing. It was not to be missed, however much you may have wanted to.

"Tragicomedy of the highest order." "Thrills and spills at every turn." "You'll laugh, you'll cry – you'll want to die of embarrassment." The critical reaction for the theatrical event of the year has been mixed in extreme, but all those who experienced 2001: The Pantomime have agreed on one thing. It was not to be missed, however much you may have wanted to.

Celebrity, of course, has been the over-arching theme of 2001. In this contemporary version of Peter Pan, fame is a Never Never Land, offering the ultimate dream of wealth, eternal youth and personality where previously there had been none. In a theatrical master-stroke, a footballer and a singer are cast as the Tinkerbeckhams, glittering, ethereal presences of the stage and chat-show studio who are impish embodiments of the lure of celebrity.

But it is another couple who prove to be the unexpected heroes of 2001 – The Pantomime. From the moment they bumble hopelessly on to the stage, singing their theme-song "Won't Somebody Give Us a Slot?", Christine and Neil Hamilton win the hearts of the audience. She is tearful, over-emotional and gauche; he gawps and grins with the face of a half-stunned haddock. Yet, together, as they hawk themselves from studio to studio, they represent an odd innocence.

They appear on silly quizzes. They cuddle under a duvet to be interviewed on breakfast TV. They make fools of themselves in a documentary, are humiliated on Who Wants to Be a Celebrity Millionaire? Finally (something of a low point for the audiences of 2001 – The Pantomime) they take their clothes off for a magazine.

By rights, they should be playing the front and rear ends of the pantomime horse, but, by the end of the show, they have become poignant representatives of all the fragilities and idiocies of the year. Few who see the 2001 experience can fail to be moved as they sing: "Won't somebody give us a slot?/ Let us show the world what we've got/ We'd fit into Cilla's or Richard and Judy's/ Please somebody give us their slot."

As the Hamiltons draw close to the land of celebrity, voices warn them of the price they may have to pay. Michael Barrymore appears, then Lord Archer, in prison uniform, followed by Vanessa Feltz, who sings a heart-breaking duet with Nasty Nick Bateman, backed by a chorus line of reality TV has-beens. A team of smartly dressed footballers appear in a nightclub sequence in which Lee Bowyer sings one of 2001's show-stoppers, a tribute to his hero, Vinnie Jones – "A Nicer Kind of Yob".

But 2001 – The Pantomime contains other darkly comic scenes. A team of angels from Westminster, played by Alan Milburn, Lord "Gus" Macdonald, Tess Jowell, Paul Boateng and Derry Irvine invite the audience to vote for goodness and virtue and a better way. By the end of 2001, these angels, their white surplices now blotted and stained, have become nagging presences, interrupting every scene with their songs "Inappropriate Behaviour" and "Do What We Say, Not What We Do".

In spite of the angels' imprecations, the forces of lawlessness dominate the pantomime. In the opening scenes, an angry mob of crop-haired middle-aged men and plumb blondes in shell-suits accompanied by their bewildered children attempt to stop the performance having been warned by the News of the World that the play corrupts kiddies. Chanting "Pedo Pan Out!", they rush the stage before departing to beat up some pedaloes at a nearby holiday camp.

2001 – The Pantomime closes with something of a shock ending. A character called Cowboy George has provided many of the laughs in the early scenes, stumbling about the stage, panicking and mangling the language with references to the importance of keeping good relations with the Grecians, to how a tax-cut is one of the best anecdotes coming out of an economic illness and singing the comic number "If You Don't Stand For Anything, You Don't Stand For Anything".

Then, in a startling coup de théâtre, Cowboy George returns in the final act – but this time in a straight role, leading the chorus, a six-shooter in each hand, for the closing number "Let's Clash Those Civilisations". It is a daring, high-risk manner to close the pantomime of the year and many members of the audience will be hoping that it is not repeated in next year's show.

terblacker@aol.com

Miles Kington is on holiday

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