|A 19th Century Panto: Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell in Babes|
in the Wood, 1897
Dick Whittingon, Liverpool Empire 26 Dec 2015
The first taste of ballet for many Brits is not The Nutcracker or Swan Lake in the Royal Opera House or some other great theatre but a Christmas pantomime in the local rep, town hall or community centre. A pantomime is a bit like a Christmas pudding in that it has just about everything thrown in (see the trailer for Dick Whittington at the Liverpool Empire) A typical production is based loosely on a fairy tale or other popular story. There is a lot of singing and dancing, slapstick comedy including a lot of topical jokes some of which are quite blue and a great deal of shouting from the audience. No matter what the title of the entertainment there is always a man dressed as a woman known as "the dame", a villain, a comic, a principal girl and a principal boy who is also often played by an attractive young woman (see Pantomime Wikipedia).
Although pantomimes are performed in other English speaking countries they are most popular in the UK. They are part of the British Christmas like crackers, turkey with all the trimmings, mince pies and Christmas pud. I remember my first pantomime very well. It was Babes in the Wood at the Palace Theatre and starred George Formby. My parents, Northern exiles, were terrified of my becoming what they called despairingly a "cockney clod" with whining vowels, an inability to distinguish between "f" and "th" and a regrettable tendency to insert an "r" into phonetically clear words like "grass" and "class". No doubt they reasoned that a dose of Formby would remind me of my Mancunuan roots but I am afraid that the only impression that he made on me was that he was not very funny because he was always laughing at his own jokes.
However, I was enchanted by the fairy who danced on pointe in a brilliant tutu. Ballet in England has plenty of overlaps with pantomime. Think of Widow Simone in Ashton's La Fille mal gardée, villains like the Mouse King and Rothbart in The Nutcracker and Swan Lake and the sword fights in Romeo and Juliet. Some ballets like Cinderella and The Sleeping Beauty even share the same plot. And in the Liverpool Empire's Dick Whittington my ballet teacher, Mark Hindle was in the cast.
My excuse for watching the show was that I was hosting Christmas this year for a little lad from London who can run like the wind and leap like a frog. We were badly delayed by a partial closure of the M62 which required a detour into central Manchester to pick up the M602 from Salford and arrived just as Dick and his cat were about to be banished from London for (allegedly) purloining Sarah the Cook's life savings. On the way back to Liverpool the Fairy Fazakerley (Sally Lindsay) revealed Dick's future in a dream on Whittington Hill. Thrice Lord Mayor not of London but of the infinitely greater city (at least in the view of the audience and no doubt also that of the indomitable Janet McNulty) of
Dick (Kurtis Stacey) enlists on board the Good Ship Lollipop which belongs to the father (Pete Price) of the lovely Alice (Leanne Campbell). The ship is wrecked off the coast of Morocco by a storm conjured up by the wicked King Rat (Warren Donnelly) and the audience are treated to a 3D cinema animation of the ocean deep. Sarah (Eric Potts) is stranded on the beach in her underwear. "I'm glad to see you again" says Dick "but perhaps not so much of you" when the adventurers are reunited. Fortunately she finds pantaloons and turban as the company belted out Jai Ho. Gita who once danced Bollywood on the stage of the West Yorkshire Playhouse was in her element. Morocco was infested with rats, a problem that Tommy the cat (Hayley Goold) resolved in no time. There was an epic sword fight in which King Rat escaped the fate of Tybalt. Dick won the lovely Alica and the company took its bow.
There was plenty of good dancing in various styles. Most of the dancers came from Dolphin Dance Studio which hosts KNT Danceworks in Liverpool where Mark HIndle used to teach for part of the week. Having danced with KNT in Liverpool Town Hall (It's not every Class that you can use Lord Canning's Eyes for Spotting 9 Sept 2014) and also with students from Liverpool in the Swan Lake intensive (see KNT's Beginners' Adult Ballet Intensive - Swan Lake: Day 1 18 Aug 2015) I was so proud of those young men and women. Their choreographer, Beverley Norris-Edmunds, deserves an enormous bouquet for her trouble.
My guests and I met Mark after the show. He graciously accepted our praise and my thanks for all that I had learned from him. My little grandson manqué performed his act for him. Mark told his parents that he should try ballet which is what I have been saying for ages. Perhaps they will act on the advice now they have heard it from a pro rather than a doting granny.
Yesterday was the first time that I had set foot in the Liverpool Empire. It is a splendid theatre. Arriving late we were shepherded into row Q of the stalls but still had a magnificent view. The acoustics were excellent. When Idle Jack (Liam Mellor) invited four children on to the stage we heard them perfectly. Incidentally, one of those children (a little girl called Summer) was as entertaining as any member of the cast. She wielded a drumstick at Mellor with real attitude as Jack gently teased her. Scottish Ballet is coming to the Empire with David Dawson's Swan Lake between 1 and 4 June. I shall be there and if you want to see a really good show in one of the best auditoriums in England so, too, will you.