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What a pantomime

Pauline McLean | 18:56 UK time, Monday, 7 December 2009

puddock226.jpgI've always had a love/hate relationship with pantomime.

Loved it when I was growing up and appearing in the chorus of the local am-dram production (good luck to everyone in this week's Dumbarton People's Theatre show, Aladdin).

Hated it in my teens when it meant an enforced break from all that angsty drama we loved to go see.

And learned to love it again as a parent - when you get to witness first hand the delight of your offspring at the sheer anarchy of being encouraged into a theatre to shout, sing and throw things!

Those with similarly ambivalent views of panto will still find it hard not to be touched by this week's release of footage from Scottish pantos from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

Part of a two year research project by the University of Glasgow, the footage has been released on DVD, screened in cinemas and forms part of an exhibition which is touring various theatres during panto season.

Like today, these early pantomimes required the stars of their day - comedians like Dave Willis, George Best, Bert Denver, Jack Anthony and Harry Gordon.

And they in turn passed the baton to the next generation who continue to keep the tradition going today.

"There are core things that happen in pantomime," says Professor Adrienne Scullion, James Arnott Chair of Drama at Glasgow University and the academic leading the project.

"Principal boys, principal girls, dames, goodies and baddies and those follow through the centuries. But pantomime is always evolving. There's always reference to popular culture, television or film, whether that's the X factor or whatever that may be, it keeps it fresh."

At the King's Theatre in Glasgow, it's singer Keith Jack taking that role - runner-up in the TV series Any Dream Will Do, a number of fans had come to see the show just to see him.

For those of a slightly older vintage, Karen Dunbar and Gerard Kelly might do the trick.

"I never ever expected to do panto," says Kelly, who celebrates his 20th panto at the Kings this year.

"I came here 20 years ago to do Mother Goose with Wallie Carr and literally fell in love with it the minute I started doing it. It is the most fantastic thing to do as a performer."

Not all actors will be so convinced. There's still a view that panto is the poor relation of theatre, even though for most theatres, a successful panto season will sustain more challenging work through the rest of the year.

And in the current climate, it seems most pantomimes are bearing up well.

But even two shows a day for the next two months doesn't beat Scottish panto's record-breaking seasons of the 1930s.

"This is nothing compared to panto seasons then which ran and ran," says Professor Scullion.

"Most famously the pantos at the Royal Princess - now the Citizens Theatre - which would start in December and run through to April or even May.

"At one point they held the record for running for 243 performances which even on three shows a day is quite good going."

If traditional panto is not your scene, there's plenty of other shows to choose from.

From the conventional Beauty and the Beast to the wonderfully unconventional Ya Beauty and the Beast to the brief but charming tale of the Puddock and the Princess at the Scottish Youth Theatre.

With an audience aged from 3-7, the cast of three have their work cut out.

The promenade performance can't begin until the puddock (played by Philip Napier) has won over his little audience and answered several ad hoc questions about the show.

Like any good panto, we have to guess passwords, sing songs, jump up and down like frogs and answer questions.

When the Puddock changes back into a prince, there's little surprise from the audience.

"Did you know that was going to happen," says the newly transformed prince.

"Yes," says my five year old, "we've read the book."

Aladdin is at the Kings Theatre in Glasgow until January 17th 2010
The Princess and the Puddock is at the Scottish Youth Theatre until December 24th.

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