24 December 1997 | Christmas Entertainment

First published in UK Guardian

I shall spend this season of over-indulgence not eating at home but being eaten at work. As a vegetarian, in these days of exotic steaks on supermarket butchery counters, I should not complain about being devoured by a vengeful crocodile - albeit one moulded out of fibre-glass for the National Theatre’s new production of Peter Pan.

"You must be having such fun!" friends assume. They don’t know how uncomfortable it can be slipping into the croc’s spiky jaws, which had nightly scarred and bruised my legs and back, until the horny teeth were replaced with foam rubber ones. Then there is crouching for twenty knee-scraping minutes below the glittering waves of the Mermaid’s Lagoon, where one of my colleagues dislocated her shoulder on the press night last week. And you try chasing young Peter up the rigging of the Jolly Roger ship in 2 inch heels with a metal hook on your hand. You will wonder whether there aren’t more fun ways of spending the holidays. Like going to see "Peter Pan," rather than performing in it nine times a week!

My reward for these physical indignities is the audible satisfaction of the audience as Captain Hook quakes at the ticking of the crocodile who ate his arm and liked it so much that "he has followed me ever since, licking his lips for the rest of me." At my scaly demise, a thousand voices erupt into triumphant cheers. I am still exploring Hook’s relationship with audiences in the Olivier Theatre. During previews I half-ignored their hisses and boos and I affected contempt. Hook, after all, is the ultimate exponent of "good form." Nor did I want to turn my part of the show into "Peter Pantomime" by encouraging heckling in the "he’s behind you" tradition.

Since the first night, however, I have followed John Caird’s direction to treat the audience not as the enemy but as allies, rather as Antony Sher used to address "Now is the winter of our discontent" to imagined ranks of tyro Richard III’s, cadets in villainy. That seems more in keeping with J.M.Barrie’s intention that, notwithstanding Pan’s plea for clapping to keep Tinker Bell alive, the most direct relationship with the audience is reserved for the villain.

This is also true in "Othello," where the Moor is denied the sort of heart-revealing soliloquies with which Iago directly addresses the audience. Over the holidays, it’s a nice arrangement backstage at the National that Simon Russell Beale’s dressing-room is adjacent to mine. Ensign Iago and Captain Hook are nextdoor neighbours and take mincepies together during the interval.

Perhaps Hook is most reminiscent of the disabled archetype Richard III. Certainly much of his dialogue parodies Shakespeare, complete with a dying speech and quotes direct from "Macbeth." I’ve added my own visual reference to Hamlet. One of the jokes of the first production in 1908 must have been watching Gerald Du Maurier, the suave drawing-room comedian par excellence, mocking classical barnstormers. In her biography, his daughter Daphne reports the front-cloth scene, where Du Maurier’s Hook emerged and re-emerged from his sedan chair, with lively impersonations of Irving, Beerbohm Tree et al. The press critics condemned this bit of fun, as being too close to the world of the Edwardian pantomime.

Much more questionable in that first "Peter Pan" was the eponymous casting of Nina DiBoucicault, whose father was the director. When, aged 3, I saw the play in Manchester over 50 years ago, I was baffled as to why a woman was trying to impersonate the boy who wouldn’t grow up. These days the old tradition lives on in the shapely Petra Pans who are flying through a dozen regional theatres. But once you have seen a male Peter, nothing else will do. And once you have seen the charismatic Daniel Evans at the National Theatre, you may never want to see anyone else attempt the part, whatever their gender.

Within pantomime proper, cross-dressing is essential, perhaps because this uniquely British entertainment reaches way beyond its beginnings in commedia dell arte, to those mediaeval winter festivals when normal life was allowed to turn topsy-turvy. Principal Boys and male Dames recall the controlled anarchy of boys who played Bishops for a day. Have you ever tried explaining to a foreigner the appeal of pantomime? It’s the same with cricket - you have to be born into the culture to appreciate it. For me, pantomime is precious because within its story-telling no-one in authority is safe from mockery. Parents, royalty, impecunious aristocracy and the broker’s men are all figures of fun. Determined young lovers always win through. If only life were more often like that.

For over a century it has been the annual grouse of theatre critics that pantomime isn’t what it used to be when they were young. This is akin to carping reviews of "Hamlet" - as if it could ever have the same impact of seeing it for the first time. What invariably persists in pantomime, regardless of the mixture of modernity and tradition, is the essence of theatre, however broadly it is presented. As such, it is the ideal introduction for kids who may be tempted to sample more adult theatre-going later on. Rosalind, Imogen and Viola disguise themselves as principal boys. Pantomime juxtaposes laughter with terror like any great tragedy. It mixes styles and decorates them with spectacle, music and dance. It relies totally on an overt complicity between audience with actors. These are the elements of live theatre, which distinguish it from cinematic story-telling. Imagine trying to film a pantomime.

Over the holidays, I am happily trapped at the National in "Peter Pan" alternating with "An Enemy of the People"; but others are working just as hard to entice you away from the box. Underneath the arches of Charing Cross, the Players are once again resurrecting "traditional" panto with a "Babes in the Wood" adapted from H. J. Byron’s original script. I shall try and get a matinee ticket for "Bugsy Malone" at the Queen’s Theatre and another to see Peggy Mount’s Fairy Godmother in the Hackney Empire "Cinderella," Then there is the other "Cinderella" - Prokofiev’s. At the Piccadilly Theatre, Matthew Bourne’s team who devised and danced last year’s equally impressive "Swan Lake" are re-telling the old story with wit, joy and breath-taking expertise. I’ve seen it twice.

If you aren’t within reach of these London treats, your paper knows what’s on locally. I envy you your chance to take the kids out with the family. But if you end up at the National and I hear you hiss, watch out for my hook!

More Writings

Ian McKellen's Home Page