Willy Russell and pantomime
Pantomimes are a curious part of being British. I used to go to one regularly as a birthday treat. Leicester, my home city, hosts a support club for pantomime dames who grow depressed out of season. I admire the wackiness, the audience interaction (He's behind you!), the way the frame of the stage keeps getting broken as actors burst through into the audience and drag kids back onstage.
I presumed it gave an edge to British playwriting. Not always so, it turns out. Willy Russell was a guest speaker at a NAWE conference in Manchester at the weekend. He let slip that he had always hated pantomime. I challenged him on it later. From the age of eight they bored him rigid. They kept digressing from the narrative drive, becoming star turns for any radio comedian with a catchphrase (my own favourite at Nottingham saw Lonnie Donegan, my skiffle hero, as Buttons in Cinderella, supported by the glistening body of the Muscle Man). A secret of playwriting is to cut, cut, cut, keep trimming those speeches as Willy Russell does, for the best theatre must hone the narrative to be a quest for truth.
I'm paraphrasing ... but boy Willy Russell hates pantomime. I admire the intensity of his views.
Of course, it's the annual run of sold-out pantomimes that funds the rest of a theatre's year. Most people swing through theatre doors for the first time when they attend the pantomime. I wonder whether Willy Russell would have had such a stellar career without the financial support of the pantomime seasons. And of course, that doesn't matter. At eight years old he was aware of what it meant to be true to his form. Hooray for him.
We all find what we want in the theatre. One of my favourite stories comes from a primary school kid in Leeds who was taken on a schooltrip to the theatre for the first time. Back in class, he had to write about the best part of the day. "We went on a big red bus," he wrote, 'and the driver's name was Jack.'