Friday, 26 December 2008
It's a few years since I last went to the pantomime.
I love panto. One of my best theatre memories is of a trip with friends to the Players Theatre under the arches off Villiers Street on the London Embankment. There I sat with a beer beside me, join in the traditional chorus of "Oh! the fairies!" and saw a recreation of an early 19th century panto, before the arrival of principal boy or pantomime dame.
Our local panto is usually a sell-out. Some years I'd be too late to get tickets and queue, hopefully, for returns. It's not a starry panto but features excellent panto actors who return year after year and girls from local dance schools as a chorus. And it's written by someone who knows panto-history, has a love of bad jokes and leaves plenty of space for improvisation.
This year, I received an email offering me two tickets for the price of one in the new year. Of course, I'm wondering if I can find a friend who would like to go with me. Many people I know despise panto. They accuse it of vulgarity, bad jokes and misogyny. But the vulgarity and bad jokes are the point. As for misogyny - occasionally there's a dame who has a pretty strange idea of women. But a show in which a woman takes the male romantic lead while a man in a frock wears the most extravagant costumes in the show hardly endorses sexual stereotypes. Moreover, a show in which the audience is encouraged to take part, shouting "Look behind you!", "Oh no it isn't!" and, in Nottingham, "Ey up, me duck!", is a risky piece of theatre owing much to the old traditions of carnival with its exuberant role-reversals.
I'd really like to go to the panto. But the two-for-one offer alarms me. It seems another sign of the recession. Family and group visits to the panto must be down - in times of hardship theatre, the arts and so many other pleasures seem like a luxury that can be cut.
When I'm poor, which happens from time to time, theatre and the arts see me through. My mother taught me that, if you have a choice between dinner and a theatre ticket, the theatre ticket is the better investment because the pleasure lasts longer. You can always take a slab of bread and eat it while standing in the gallery. And my mother taught me the pleasures of free museums and art galleries - places to wander and let the imagination roam. A carefully-chosen postcard of a painting can be carried around for months, used as a bookmark and finally, in an act of generosity, sent to a friend.
But how many theatre companies and art galleries will survive the economic crisis? What will become of the musicians who give so much pleasure? And, for people whose pleasures lie elsewhere, how will the sports grounds be maintained? Will there be bus trips that take us to the countryside and will the paths, moors and beaches be maintained? What will happen to those historic sites that have been labelled "national (or international) heritage"? Somehow, in the disasters ahead, I hope we find time to preserve not just life itself but the things that, for many of us, make life worthwhile. And I hope we learn to share these pleasures more generously.