A chain of pantos past
People will never accept that pantos nowadays are as good as the ones they remember from their childhood. That would be tantamount to admitting that their children's Christmases are as magical as their were People will never admit either that the Gaiety panto is as good now as it was when they were children and so Comet Productions, and particularly director Mavis Ascott have a problem. They need to entertain children who don't give a hoot for tradition and they need to face down their extremely conservative parents.
They manage it Aladdin, presented as straight entertainment for children, is a Christmas present wrapped in layers of theatrical tradition. The fairytale, Aladdin is here far from its oriental source a wonderful piece of Victorian British Chinoiserie. The chinamen are the kind we used to draw as children with wide hats and pigtails strange exotic reflections of Chinese life in another era. The Hit this achieves is all the stronger because real Chinese life is now visible to us all through television and film the Chinese world of Aladdin is as perfectly imaginary as the world of Nelly Behind the Wall Paper. The odd contemporary references, like the bikes flowing to and fro against the oriental backdrop, only serve to highlight the artificiality of the scene.
And this is the fariytale according to panto tradition with the Widow Twankey as the blustering Ma, Princess Nightingale's ugly sister So Shy and her comic partner. Aladdin's eejity brother, Wishee Washee.
Fairytales succeeded stock commedia dell'arte characters as the back bone of panto at the last century fairytales with the stuffing knocked out of them to make them good dramatic material.
THE music hall tradition is the great trunk onto which these stray panto branches were grafted and its mark is still strong on contemporary panto. Mavis Ascott has long shack done away with cross dressing, however, which some commentators say was instituted so that men could get a glorious eye full of female leg right up to the princess doublet. Ascott says that children just think it's daft she plots her pantos like musicals, never straying into long digressions and she integrates contemporary music and dance (as you would expect of a woman who danced with Pan's People) into the worthy old fibre of the tale.
You could almost say she is traditional in not being traditional. Panto has always been a magpie, picking up new baubles to get bums on scats. Ascott has trusted contemporary children to help create magic as well as children in faded black and white photographs, and she has followed where they have led to squeeze big business out of an old theatrical form.
And so she has opened the stage up to the wonderful, emerging comic talent of Pat Kinevane for instance, who plays the evil Abanazel this year. June Rodgers who plays So Shy is a pertest ugly sister from her first braying laugh. Perhaps there are no new Jimmy O'Dea's because no one will allow popular artists to be valued until they are dead or dying.
Ascott has safe guarded a great institution, the Dublin panto, for another generation of children, because she has respected it enough to believe it can really entertain. And by ignoring the Chorus of disapproval from purist parents, she has put their children's hums back on the velvet seats to communicate, through the magic telegraph of the stage, not just with their parents' generation but with children strung back over Dublin Christmases in a great chain of remembrance.