Joyce McMillan: Demand for panto well into January

Jack and the Beanstalk panto at Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy. Picture: Contributed
Jack and the Beanstalk panto at Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy. Picture: Contributed
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THE tree is down, and the fairy lights twinkle no more; but if January blues are getting you down, you could always – oh yes you could – still catch up with a panto.

The great tradition of post-Christmas panto fun has taken a severe knock in the last few decades, as the Christmas feast has moved ever further forward into November; gone are the days when the big Edinburgh and Glasgow pantos would play on well into February.

Yet still, some pantos remain gallantly on stage, across Scotland. At the Glasgow King’s, Peter Pan has its final performances tomorrow; in Edinburgh, you can catch Allan Stewart, Grant Stott and Andy Gray in their cheerful and glittering Aladdin for another full week, until Sunday 18th. And across the Forth in Kirkcaldy, there are two final performances today for the lang toun’s version of Jack And The Beanstalk, starring award-winning actor Billy Mack as the irrepressible Dame Tammy Shanter.

So last weekend, I set off to Kirkcaldy to check out what a panto looks like, once the excitement of Christmas and New Year is over, and the once-a-year-day festive magic on which panto thrives is slightly past its sell-by-date; and the short answer is that I needn’t have worried. Admittedly, the task of getting to grips with the Kirkcaldy panto is complicated by the extreme ingenuity of the script. The Adam Smith Theatre, where leading panto writer and performer Alan McHugh learned his trade a decade ago, often acts as a testing-ground for new McHugh versions of panto stories not yet much seen elsewhere; and this year’s complex take on Jack And The Beanstalk – set in a 19th century Edinburgh full of mad scientists and Dickensian orphans – struggles both to accommodate the basic rural elements of the story (the cow, the beanstalk), and to make itself look as if it has anything to do with Fife.

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Yet tangled plot notwithstanding, as soon as the audience enter the theatre, they slip contentedly back into festive celebration mode, as the kids munch sweeties and waggle their light-up toys from the merchandise stall. It’s true that a panto set to run on into January should perhaps avoid any excessively “Christmassy” imagery; this show’s early snow-sprinkled medley of carols seems distinctly out of time. And then there was the man in my row who spent most of the show checking out the football results on his mobile phone, while his little lad slumped glumly beside him; I’m not sure the same scene would have been played out in the intense week before Christmas, when parents and children alike tend to be more focused on the coming feast.

For the rest, though, a general air of fun, festivity and New Year goodwill seems to be more than enough to carry a panto through until the middle of January; and as A Play, A Pie A Pint at Oran Mor has demonstrated, with its invention of a previously unheard-of “summer panto tradition”, there’s everything to be said for repeating the same festival of licensed daftness again, during the July holiday season.

Just one thing, though. If you would rather commune with your mobile phone than watch a show, then I would beg you to stay clear of theatre altogether; simply because your refusal to connect with the stage represents such a profound breach of the shared human experience on which the art-form depends that it blights the event for everyone around you. “You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting,” says Lady Macbeth to her troubled husband, constantly distracted from his royal banquet by the vision of Banquo’s ghost. And if Alan McHugh can quote Shakespeare in his panto scripts – and he does – then I can perhaps quote him too; in celebration of those who are prepared to switch off and join in, for a couple of hours in the theatre, and against the mirth-breakers who think they are “always on”, when in fact – and increasingly – they are never fully present anywhere.

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