British – and English – life is flecked with all sorts of absurdities. The self-conscious quirks that stuff the myth kitty of our cultural heritage. Morris dancing and village fetes; Sunday Roasts and warm beer that tastes like liquidised brown bread. The comforting, slightly out-of-date twee ephemera and half-remembered ideas around our national identity.
But nothing really compares to the spectre of the Great British Pantomime: that powerful, yearly occurring social leveller. Every festive period, from Catford to Peterhead, local theatres are crammed with the classics. Peter Pan, Dick Whittington, Cinderella and Mother Goose. Widow Twankey and Snow White. It’s a carnival of high camp – stuffed full of innuendo and deliberately hammy acting, plus the odd C-list celeb, or off-duty soap star.
Fun, and for the whole family. The one cultural event that unites stressed parents, indulgent grandmothers and bawling toddlers as one. If not quite a night at The National Theatre, then still one of the purest and genuinely communitarian nights out imaginable. After all, only a stony heart could fail to be moved by a rousing ‘he’s behind you’, played for the maximum slapstick effect.
But what about the performers who make it all tick. It’s one thing, as an audience member, to find the whole carnivalesque schtick exhausting, safe in the knowledge that it’s all going to end in a couple of manic hours; quite another to have to repeat it every night for three months. And not just to repeat – but to manufacture total enthusiasm, for every one of those performances. In truth, it’s hard to conceive of many tougher gigs.
How does it feel then, to survive a run intact? At what point does sheer adrenaline kick in, or is that a moot point when your working day is navigating a world in which the suspension of reality isn’t just an artistic luxury, but the absolute minimum.
For Alexis Self, the emotions associated with the panto are a complex thing. He’s an experienced performer, having recently completed his third season as part of The Portobello Panto, a community show in Notting Hill. To be honest, it comes as something of a relief, when it ends, he tells me over email.
“The Portobello Panto isn’t at the Palladium or Old Vic and so our run is only six shows: Tuesday to Friday and two shows on Saturday. Everyone who takes part, from the kids dressed as frogs to the band, the lighting and the stagehands all do it for free, so it’s a little rough around the edges, but this is part of its charm”, he explains.
There are still plenty of obstacles to be hurdled over, aside from just relying on people’s enduring goodwill. It shouldn’t be forgotten that these are seriously sized undertakings, even with a panto as ‘small’ as theirs. “The cast is big – with about 40 parts – and there’s always a moment, usually during the dress rehearsal, when everyone’s looking at each other thinking ‘fuck, this is going to be an utter shambles’, but somehow it always works out on the night. The one just gone was apparently our 30th anniversary, but I think someone might’ve made that up to sell tickets”, he adds.
The community is important for Alexis – with the panto part of his own, personal history. “I’ve been around it since I was a kid. My auntie Anna Chancellor started it in the Portobello Star pub with Kevin and Keith Allen, Ray Jones, Jock Scot and other assorted reprobates. This was in the late ‘80s when Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove were much cooler. The area’s changed a lot since then but the panto’s remained a constant, reaching back to a time when Portobello was livelier and more diverse”.
Indeed, many of the actors and crew are still local people: a rarity in one of London’s most aggressively hyper gentrified areas. The panto is a part of history worth fighting, and grafting, for. “Most of the people are still local and like me, many of those involved have been doing it since they were young. I didn’t do it for years then came back three years ago and wrote it and have done ever since, and the production team is now fully made up of the second generation. I always moan and groan about all the work involved but it’s always so much fun and we raise a lot of money for really worthwhile local charities”.
It’s not all fun or fuzzy feelings of achieving good in the community. Panto can also be a painful, interminable slog at its worst. The wailing children and minor – occasionally major – disasters involving dodgy sets, rotten coworkers and pervading cynicism. One actor familiar with “more than a few” midlands productions speaks of heavy exhaustion after her last run, a couple of years ago, in 2017. “You’d think that people would let their egos go a bit, seeing as it’s ‘only’ pantomime – but you’d be very, very wrong”, she tells me with a bitter laugh. The intensity can be grinding as well as grim, “and you don’t even get any of the kudos that a so-called serious actor does in even the most basic part. Burn out can be very real, daft as it sounds”, she adds.
Still, there’s something compulsive at the heart of it. Alexis knows for a fact that old habits die hard, if at all. He tells me he’ll still be doing it in 20 years, if possible. And yeah, they also respect one of the pantos proudest – and most surreal – traditions, possibly aided by the area’s proximity to A-list names. “There’s always a different celebrity cameo every night, we’ve had the weird and the wonderful: Kate Moss, David Gest, Natalie Dormer, Jack Whitehall, Christopher Biggins, Peter Capaldi”.
Other panto insiders that I speak to also stress the same thing: it’s a labour of love. And that seems to be the case, outside of the more mammoth productions that loiter in the centre of the main cities. One Irish actor I speak with is effusive about its merits. “The word ‘family’ is way overused within theatrical contexts, but that’s exactly what the cast and crew of any pantomime quickly become”, he tells me as we chat.
“No other job has as dense a performance schedule, as intense a rehearsal period or a run that overlaps with Christmas, one of the most social and, for some, special times of the year. If I had to take a guess, I reckon ‘Ain’t No Business Like Show Business’ might have been written about us Panto folk, because there truly ain’t no people like Panto people”, he adds wryly.
Pantomime might conjure images of a mordant Shane Richie, mumbling his lines in a Zone 4 community centre, but that doesn’t mean it has any bearing on the reality of one of the most lively and determinedly farcical points on the calendar. No, it isn’t high art – and yes, you can probably quote every single line half a second before it happens. But honestly, is there any finer, or more joyous, way to spend a festive Saturday afternoon?