Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left **THE Panto Thread 2009

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Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left **THE Panto Thread 2009
Ugly sisters, golden geese and ancient punchlines are returning to theatres across the country this weekend as the pantomime programme creaks back into life.

More than 300 professional productions are booked, not all of them overpriced and dreadful. Pamela Anderson, Mickey Rooney and Britt Ekland are among the international stars struggling to make sense of the cross-dressing, the plate-breaking and the inevitable crop of soap actors, reality television has-beens and talent show cast-offs who dust down their dance steps every Christmas for the people of Milton Keynes or Mansfield.

For the panto purist, the first port of call is East London where a diminutive part-time employee at the Hackney Empire has become the standard bearer for this most eccentric of British traditions.
Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left **THE Panto Thread 2009

Susie McKenna, 47, has very firm views on how pantomimes should be done and a host of ecstatic reviews and hit shows behind her to support her arguments.

The giant board on the outside of the Empire theatre has been advertising Londons No 1 Pantomime for weeks. Clive Rowe, her regular Dame, was nominated for an Olivier award for his Mother Goose last year.

At the stage door Noel Morgan, the doorkeeper for six years, flashes a fabulous toothy smile and shakes his head in admiration. Miss McKenna? Shes the panto queen, he says. Yes she is. Tempting as it might be, there is no point in answering back with an Oh no she isnt. She is.

The daughter of two music hall performers, McKenna has been appearing in pantomimes since she was 6, was first a principal boy at 19 and has starred in, written or directed a pantomime (often all three) nearly every year since. Her first directing effort was at the Empire in 1994, with Barry Cryer and Michelle Collins. Aladdin, which opens on Saturday with Rowe once again filling the biggest frocks, will be her 13th.

Rehearsals in the architect Frank Matchams glorious 1,300-seat music hall began on Monday. The wings are crammed with neatly labelled props (2 x super soaker guns, 1 x African flyswat, 1 x Shrunk Wishy Washy) and on stage is a bright pink Morris Minor.

During a break McKenna explains why panto matters. Its the first time that most children come to the theatre and our opportunity to capture their imagination with stories that they know and then to twist them.

The Hackney audience is one of the most diverse in the country and she sees it as a huge responsibility to encourage them to bond by laughing at themselves and each other without being too nasty and without deflecting attention from the real fall guys, the Stoke Newington neighbours.

Pantomimes are perfect vehicles for debating knotty contemporary issues, McKenna says. The Twankeys are a problem family. Mother Goose is about consumer greed and learning about inner rather than outer beauty.

There are rules to follow, some of them dating back beyond Victorian music hall and others from McKennas own formula. The show has to be aimed predominately at children, there is no swearing, blasphemy or blue innuendo (saucy is about as far as we go) and she never kills off characters. Goodies come on from stage right, baddies from stage left. Abanazar can cross the stage because hes a flawed magician not an immortal, but its incredibly bad luck if fairies or witches do.

Reflecting the make-up of the audience, black artists have most of but not all the lead roles, the script is peppered with West Indian slang and the action is set in Hackneytopia, Ha-ka-Ne or some other fictionalised version of the area.

This year is the first time that McKenna has tackled Aladdin since 2004, when the Empire went head to head with the Old Vics posh panto, starring Sir Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey, and emerged victorious.

I will always be grateful to Sir Ian McKellen for that, she says. We were the underdogs and I think most critics came to see us because they thought that we would be the s**t ones. But the attention was wonderful. Now we are the ones to beat and I would be lying if I said I didnt feel it.

She is grateful for the competition after years when she felt that most pantomimes were not good enough, stuffed with Gladiators off the telly who couldnt cut it on stage. The doldrum days have gone now. People have realised that its not just about making money, its about getting kids into the theatre and not losing them to TV, films and video games.

Part of the responsibility for the dross served up over the years lies with the punters, McKenna believes. 'British audiences are really weird. They love mediocrity. Look at Jedward [the laughably bad X-Factor contestants]. Musical theatre people find that tough to swallow'.

Excellence is the only thing Im really interested in and excellence doesnt have to be arty farty. You can have excellence in panto. Rowe agrees, and says that he approaches pantomime just as seriously as Shakespeare. Although I would probably be more nervous about playing Lear than Widow Twankey.

**Panto figures

29 productions last year by QDS and First Family Entertainment had a turnover of 25 million

38 years running Christopher Biggins played a Dame until Im a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! interrupted his run in 2007

87 years old Mickey Rooney at his panto debut last year in Sunderland

Updated On: 12/1/09 at 06:27 AM
exedore
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Having seen this year's Aladdin (and already booked for the closing performance as well), I can say that the Empire's show is once again the one to beat, and I am genuinely torn between trying to see Paul O'Grady in Wimbledon and knowing that it won't hold up to what I've already seen.

I *am* seeing the Shaw's 'Rock and Roll Aladdin' next week, though - free tickets and a friend in the cast. Huzzah.

Also hoping that some tickets emerge for Young Dick Barton in Croydon again...any other panto/holiday recommendations?
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Sounds like Hackney have done it again!
The money it will cost you to Wimbledon you could easily spend on seeing 2 others around town. To honest I cant see Wimbledon being much cop this year. O'Grady is in it for just one week, by this time the whole thing should be up to speed towards its closing and larking around the name of the game. As it is, the production will constantly be in rehearsal.
Not for me.
I have already to give it a miss this year and I think it is the first Ive missed in nearly 30 years.

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Am i the only person who hates panto? Bad acting, bad costumes, bad sets... bad times!
Jesus Loves You... Everybody else thinks you're an idiot!
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BAD BOY!
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'Having seen this year's Aladdin (and already booked for the closing performance as well), I can say that the Empire's show is once again the one to beat, and I am genuinely torn between trying to see Paul O'Grady in Wimbledon and knowing that it won't hold up to what I've already seen.

I *am* seeing the Shaw's 'Rock and Roll Aladdin' next week, though - free tickets and a friend in the cast. Huzzah.

Also hoping that some tickets emerge for Young Dick Barton in Croydon again...any other panto/holiday recommendations?'

exeodore I understand you are originally from America, so very surprised you like pantomime, as I understand most American's loathe the genre, so pleasant surprise you like it.
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Thanks for that article very interesting and Hurrah for panto time!
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'exedore I understand you are originally from America, so very surprised you like pantomime, as I understand most American's loathe the genre, so pleasant surprise you like it. '

I was quite the Anglophile before I moved to the UK, and have always loved the British sense of humour, which goes a long way towards appreciating panto (as does a love of camp and trashy film.)
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Canadians LOVE pantomime.
They have one every year at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto and many more are produced right across the country. Back in the 70s the London Palladium used to pack up its entire show and ship it off to Toronto for a 4 week season.
This idea was started by Lionel Blair and he got to star in a number of them alongside other UK panto stalwarts like Anita Harris and Cilla Black.
re: Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left


Australians don't seem to take to panto like we do which is a surprise as at all other times they share our humor exactly.
I had 2 friends up here from Sydney back in the mid 90s and took them to see a truly spectacular traditional panto at Saddlers Wells, 'Babes In The Wood' with Roy Hud and Jack Tripp, and they were completely stumped by it and struggled through the show like restless kids.
They much preffered being able to catch Elaine Paige in 'Sunset Blvd' the following night!
No accounting for taste eh!
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re: Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left
Wolverhampton.

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Manchester.

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Belfast.

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Southampton.



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Cardiff.

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Swansea.

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Birmingham.

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Plymouth.

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Newcastle Upon Tyne

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Blackpool.

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Southend On Se.a

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Dartford.


Updated On: 12/1/09 at 12:29 PM
exedore
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I am actually not a huge Cinders fan - there's no real dame (the ugly sisters double as the villain/henchman role) and most productions spurn casting Buttons as a true principal Boy. Much prefer a good Dick Whittington, Aladdin, etc.

Oh, what's the word on Lyric Hammersmith's Jack and the Beanstalk? The only one I've seen is the disastrous Barbican production in 2007.
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re: Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left

In Ireland we have Linda Martin eurovision winner in Robin Hood (olympia) and Big brother brian dowling and irish representive in eurovision 09 sinead mulvey in Cinderella ( panto.ie )

''With the number of people I ignore, I'm lucky I work at all in this town'' - Helena Bonham Carter
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re: Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left
Barbican theatre 2006


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Barbican Theatre 2005


re: Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left
Saddlers Well's Theatre 2000
Headline to one of the reviews read: 'When Panto Loses The Plot'.

The above three pantos tried and failed miserable to reinvent traditional panto.
I have to say they were the three worst pantos I have ever had to sit through. I left at the interval of each and every one.
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Was one of them written by Mark Ravenhill? I vaguely remember him writing a panto, and thinking that that sounded like one to avoid!

I do like a good panto, but a bad one is pretty much theatrical hell for me. re: Fairies To the Right- Baddies To The Left
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anyone know what a robin hood panto is genereally abot
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Panto when done right can be brilliant and it's a great way of introducing kids to theatre, My Mum has got tickets to Aladdin when Paul O'Grady is on, getting Pamela Anderson was a silly idea as it will be Paul who will bring in punters, I think due to his health he couldn't do a longer run.

It's a shame The Old Vic aren't doing a Panto this year.
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legallysam
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well Robin Hood has John Barrowman in it....so im guessing its gonna be all about him... :P
"Rock Of Ages is about as original as gay men at a clap clinic" - SANDM2
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as everything always is....
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cages/wings?
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Well, same as last year I am doing university work right up the last minute then working on my little amateur panto, so I won't get chance to see one!

I will, however, know every word of Sleeping Beauty. And every inch of the set which I have been designing and building and painting for months.

I LOVE panto!
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Australia used to have a very strong tradition with pantos also. All the capital cities always had one or two play through the January school holidays but this seemed to haved died off in the late 1960's early 1970's. There was an attempt to revive the tradition in Sydney in the early 1990's but the results weren't what was hoped for and we have never had big shows since.
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Llandudno.
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Bradford
...with Leeanne Jones from 'Hairspray'
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Nottingham.
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'Snow White And The Dwarf!'
Brick Lane Music Hall.

Panto on a shoestring but it is one the best nights entertainment you will experience in London over Christmas. You get a full 3 course Christmas dinner followed by one of the most bawdy adults only pantos you will ever see!
Highly recommended!
Updated On: 12/2/09 at 01:34 PM
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Bromley.