And not just any old theatre show, oh no no no...John took me and Marshall to see a traditional British stage pantomime!
If you're not familiar with a British pantomime, well, I could either send you off to Wikipedia ("The Encyclopaedia You Can Scribble In") or heck, I'll just tell you briefly myself. A British pantomime is not anything to do with mimes, Marcel Marceau, not talking or imaginary boxes. It's not silent at all; quite the reverse. It's a traditional British Christmas entertainment, mainly for children (like me and Marshall) but also enjoyed by people with great taste and a sense of fun (like me and Marshall): campy, outrageous, flamboyant retellings of famous fairy tales with song, dance, very bad jokes, cross-dressing, and a lot of audience participation. Throughout the performance the kids (and hey, the adults too) are called upon to yell back at the actors to alert them of danger ("He's behind you!") to hiss the baddies ("Boooooo!"), to groan at the bad puns ("Moan!"), and to agree or disagree with characters as needed. ("I'm the King Rat!" "OH NO YOU'RE AREN'T!" "Oh yes I am!" "OH NO YOU AREN'T!") Etc., etc. Check your propreiatry at the door, because a pantomime is very, very silly indeed.
I'm familiar with the tradition and the conventions of pantomime, mainly through listening to the classic BBC radio comedy series I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again!, but I've never been to one. That's why I was delighted when John, still gleefully keeping mum, pulled us off the Underground train at Barbican station and we all marched down to the Barbican Theater. It's no longer the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company, so I actually thought I would never set foot in the place again. John fondly remembers many, many trips in 1983 to see the RSC, and he bored us by wistfully reminiscing about following the painted yellow line on the ground, past Defoe Towers on his way to a show, and dashing down it in reverse direction to catch a train back to Gloucester Terrace. We both stopped him from further discussion; you could tell the next thing he was going to start talking about was Mary Emerton and how cute she was.
The show tonight was Dick Whittington and His Cat, the traditional panto story of the three-time Lord Mayor of London and his very clever cat and their rise to fortune. Plus, a king rat and lots of very bad jokes. The theater lobby was filled with many happy families with charming British children (we were the only little stuffed bull and tiny stuffed cow in attendance, I think), and John bought us colourful show programs and we each got to choose a fancy trinket from the Dick Whittington gift table: I got a flashy plastic sword and Marshall picked a lightup whirling pinwheel. We almost didn't get a chance to sit down: an usher tried to tell John that he was in the wrong theatre twice until another usher interferred and set him correct, and John got to take us to our seats. (We think maybe he couldn't figure out why a big doughy American guy was coming all by himself to a British panto. Maybe he didn't see us running underfoot.
One of the tradiitions of British panto is cross-dressing, so Dick Whittington was played by a very pretty girl (in a short skirt with great legs) and Sarah the Cook was played by an older man. This is normal: you always have a dame or older woman character played by an older man, quite frequently a famous British actor or comedian. Last year there was a big panto that starred Ian McKellanyes, Gandalf and Magnetoas the Dame! I would have liked to have seen him, but we were in for a treat too, as Sara the Cook was played by Roger Lloyd Pack, from the classic BBC series Only Fools and Horses (he also played Barty Crouch in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fireand he camped it up tremendously. Her, er, his performance and role was completely outrageous, a little scandalous (I'm sure there were many saucy jokes that went over Marshall's head...oh, and mine, most of them.), and totally over the top. It's not for nothing that the Dame is often the stand-out role in a panto.
We were encouraged to shout out and help the characters on stage: to wake up Totally Lazy Jack, to warn of the approach of the evil rats, to boo and hiss the wicked Rat King, and to sing along to the songs. (Some of which were written by Jim Bob of Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine; another one was written by Kit Hesketh-Harvey, a frequent guest on another of my favourite BBC radio panel shows, Just a Minute.) Candy was thrown to the kids in the audience, and the first ten rows got wet when everyone was hosed down with water guns. It was all very silly and nonsensical but a great deal of fun. Towards the end two pairs of children were invited to come on stage to help out singing a song and Marshall and I were one of the pairs! (Editor's note: certain elements of this post only exist in Mister Bull's active imagination. Indulge him, won't you?) We were brought up on stage and
when we got back to the hotel, I read some reviews in Time Out and some Londony newspapers. Some of the reviewers lambast the Barbican production of Dick Whittington as too glossy and "trying to be too arty," without the low-brow appeal that Christmas pantomimes have evolved into. All I have to say is, the show I saw had hundreds of kids howling and laughing in delight, eagerly waving their lighted pinwheels and swords back and forth and screaming in warning as the King Rat snuck up on our heroes. To heck with reviewers saying it was trying too hard. I'll say the same thing about a theatre show that I do about comics: Pantos Oughta be Fun. And with the dumb jokes and fun costumes and outrageous drag acts and silly songs, this little stuffed bull, and even the big doughy guy who went with him, hereby declares Dick Whittington and His Cat as fun.