Joyce McMillan: Panto season needs creativity

The BFG at the Lyceum is one of two Roald Dahl stories in Scottish theatres this Christmas. Picture: Contributed

The BFG at the Lyceum is one of two Roald Dahl stories in Scottish theatres this Christmas. Picture: Contributed

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THE end of November approaches, and the great Panto Grid begins to take shape on my desk.

At the moment, there are 22 professional shows scribbled into spaces on the grid, morning, noon and evening; but there could easily be a dozen more, in theatres from Inverness to Ayr, and beyond. There’s no denying the colossal scale of the Christmas show phenomenon, as it sweeps through Scotland’s theatres; for some venues, panto sales across three or four weeks, often with more than one performance a day, can represent almost half of their box office income for a year.

So when theatres run into trouble, the Christmas show is always the last production to go, and the first to return. One particularly happy opening night this year is the gala panto performance at the Byre in St Andrews, dark since January 2013, and now reopened at last, under university management, with a version of Jack And The Beanstalk created by the Bard In The Botanics company from Glasgow. Perth Theatre may be closed for refurbishment, but its annual panto appears at Perth Concert Hall, without missing a step. Theatres that generally don’t produce their own professional shows, like the Brunton in Musselburgh, make an exception for panto. And when new theatre spaces appear on the scene, like the gorgeous Beacon Arts Centre at Greenock, they use panto to attract audiences and affirm their presence; this year, the Beacon’s boss Julie Ellen directs a new version of Cinderella by Alan McHugh.

So what does this huge explosion of activity do for theatre in Scotland, apart from providing much-needed income? There’s no doubt that when it comes to panto, the Scottish theatre scene benefits from the relative smallness of its scale, which guarantees close and often productive relationships between Christmas theatre and year-round theatre work. Most of the new writing-and-performing stars of Scottish Christmas theatre – like Johnny McKnight at the Tron and MacRobert, or Aberdeen super-Dame and ubiquitous panto writer Alan McHugh – move effortlessly between panto and other forms, appearing regularly as writers, actors and directors in other shows. Play, Pie And Pint at Oran Mor slides smoothly from its normal lunchtime programme into two political pantos a year; this season’s offering, by David Anderson, is a new take on the Emperor’s New Clothes. The scene offers a huge range of Christmas entertainment, from full-scale traditional pantos, through satirical meta-pantos for grown-ups at the Tron and Oran Mor, to a straight Christmas musical in Pitlochry, which this year presents Miracle On 34th Street, and two major Roald Dahl children’s shows at Dundee and the Royal Lyceum. And in recent years, there has been a huge growth in smaller shows for much smaller people, at the MacRobert, the Tron, the Arches, the Traverse, the Platform in Glasgow, and North Edinburgh Arts Centre.

If there is a concern around the Scottish Christmas scene at the moment, it might lie in a decline of the commissioning of contemporary Scottish-based writers to create new mainstage children’s shows. For the moment, theatres like the Citizens’, the Lyceum and Dundee seem to be relying on existing versions of stories like James And The Giant Peach, The BFG and Dickens’s Christmas Carol, which appears at the Citizens’ this year; and the rising generation of writers feature mainly in shows for tiny tots.

Yet with many hundreds of performers, choreographers, designers, lighting artists, musicians, technicians and stage managers hard at work in Scotland’s theatres at this moment, putting together a season of entertainment that draws audiences to it on a scale – and with a social reach – still unrivalled at other times of year, it’s hard to see Scotland’s panto scene as anything other than an explosion of rude health; although which shows will hit the creative heights this year, and which will only do the mimimum to keep the income rolling in, remains to be seen.

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