There aren’t many things I miss about London.
Waiting for the 22 bus on evenings of interplanetary cold: no. Inching down Oxford Street through crowds like rows of rugby prop forwards: not really.
The endless zoom of cars, planes, bicycle messengers, greedy pigeons, nosy policeman, Rastafarians, Orange people, pedestrians, equestrians, celebrities, non-entities, the odd passing Royal. Just thinking about it makes me want to lie down.
But there is one time of year when the city shakes itself out of Bombay madness and adopts a beguiling air of seasonal mystery. Cross-dressing that is latent becomes manifest. Ageing TV personalities whose names are fading memories become star-turns once more.
Theatres with seasons so dull Stanislavski himself would rise from the grave to tear down their posters, aspire to fun and wit. And if not fun and wit, then weirdness and smut. And for sure, in theatre doesn’t everything have its place?
Yes, its panto season, where no joke is too lame, no costume too garish, no story too hack, for self-indulgent re-use. Theatre is an art form containing the highest expressions of the human imagination. It also lays claim to the silliest. And thank God, because sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
Growing up in the 1970s I was part of a duffle-coated throng of children drifting from theatre to theatre like a shoal of mackerel, squeezing into family-priced seats for afternoons of malarkey and 30p ice-creams.
I saw them all: Wind in the Willows, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Aladdin, Sleeping Beauty, something called The Creatures of Cabbage Patch Corner, whose indestructible musical refrain persists in my memory 40 years after performance.
It happened like this. When I was four years old my English grandmother – iron-willed progeny of a Napoleonic Wars General – took me to Peter Pan.
It was at the Mermaid Theatre, then un-renovated. After a few scenes, a fearsome Captain Hook was propelled on stage sitting on a castored throne-like contraption. Because Granny Meyrick was also in a wheelchair at the time (for reasons unrelated to criminal piracy) I became convinced she had nipped to the wings and herself taken the villainous lead.
After that, I was hooked. Theatre had become, in the plasticity of my youthful consciousness, an art-form of consummate surprise.
In Currency’s Companion to Theatre in Australia, Veronica Kelly calls pantomime “a dream of joy” and notes its early take-up in the colonies, its use of spectacle, topical allusion and “children as animals and fairies”.
But dissecting a pantomime is like dissecting a soap bubble.
Take Australia Felix (1873) by Garnett Walch, master of 19th-century theatrical cheese. Kelly writes:
Walch devised a plot which involved rivalry between Mirth and Mischief to rule Australia, which was supervised by the Demon King Kantankeros, who wished to import English gloom. Young Australia Felix was given a magic cricket bat to play for Victoria against W G Grace’s touring All-England XI.
A real match between these sides, in progress when the show opened, was integrated into the pantomime as off-stage action. Felix gambled away the bat, but finally recovered it with the help of a kookaburra and Kantankeros was defeated.
A meeting of art and sport we can all learn from, I think.
After the Imperial era panto lost popularity, displaced by its near-cousin, vaudeville. But it never disappeared.
Jim Sharman’s memoir Blood and Tinsel (2009) opens with a wonderful description of a fantale-throwing matinee at Sorlie’s (“I guess that is where it started. I was five years old”).
And in the 1970s New Wave artists fell on pantomime like a cannibal on a thigh bone. Hamlet on Ice (1971) was one of the kookiest yet most exemplary productions coming out of Sydney’s Nimrod Theatre.
I have a clipping somewhere of Kate Fitzpatrick in tights (oozing sex), Bob Hornery in tent-like drag, (“Elsinore’s answer to Myra Breckenridge”), and Grahame Bond with electric guitar and an afro the size of a prize-winning pumpkin.
It was researching this show, years ago, that I finally “got” the Australian theatrical sensibility. Hamlet on Ice is panto on crack. It doesn’t merely dispense with narrative coherence, it destroys it in whacky, tacky, lurid low-mindedness, a cultural suttee in which the Value of Art feeds the flame of Total Fun.
“The deformities of the town, its vices, follies and absurdities are paraded for mockery,” remarked critic Brian Hoad in the Bulletin, dead impressed.
In the age of the international it indulges in the homespun; in the age of the sophisticate, it wallows in an orgy of gross vulgarity; in the age of precise planning it opens wide the doors to the ad-lib; in the age of bitter cerebral humour it can throw you back onto the street with a belly aching from laughter, wondering why that sort of feeling should be so rare.
Perhaps panto’s topsy-turvyness appeals to a nation unsure whether it is at the top of the world or the bottom.
One of the best things about pantomime is that it is highly receptive to insane ideas provided they involve terrible jokes and loud clothing. I’m sort of a specialist in both those areas, so let me outline a vehicle that, without prejudice, I can say is bound to be a sure-fire hit.
It involves two things we love to hate: politicians and rabbits. I call it The Tale of Tony Rabbit or The Bad Bunny.
Here’s the plot.
Tony Rabbit is elected “Big Bunny” in a warren with issues in respect of population growth, climate degradation, vegetable hoarding etc. There are some other bunnies he hangs out with, including one called “the Pyne”, who is skinny and always pooing in other bunny’s burrows, and “the Bishop”, who is softer and knows how to handle visitors from other fields.
Pretty soon it becomes clear the group wants to hog all the carrots for itself and its over-fed hangers-on. Also, Tony likes to push so-called “refugee” bunnies into a nearby stream whenever he can.
He gets into some scrapes but is eventually caught by the local farmer, Palmer, and eaten. The Pyne ends up on a Lucky Foot key-ring. The Bishop is turned into a pair of slippers.
In theatre, casting is all. I’m thinking of asking Our Russ to take the lead and Our Nicole to consider the Bishop. Certainly, Our Hugh would make a great farmer but it would be a move against gender stereotyping to offer it to Our Cate.
Who will play the Pyne? This is a key role. It requires serious consideration and possibly public consultation. I’ll also need a walk-on for the Spirit of Deregulation and a musical chorus for the big Marseilles-like number at the end: Dr-udgery, In-equality, Dis-unity.
It’s traditional to use non-professional celebs on these occasions, so I’ll invite Jacqui Lambie to play a giant turnip.
This article is the first in The Conversation’s End of Year series.