Men should be afraid. Men in the stalls should be very afraid. Bald men in the stalls near an aisle should be Very Afraid Indeed.
Most of the time, men (unlike women) have nothing to fear from the theatre. But not at pantomime time. For at any moment in the pantomime, somebody onstage can peer out into the auditorium, notice the light bouncing off the top of your baldy bonce and summon you up to join them for some ritual humiliation. The good news is that this only happens once in each show, so once a victim has been picked, you can rest easy. The bad news is that if you are picked, you’ll be the butt of a variety of jokes for the rest of the performance. So you might as well relax and enjoy it.
Here are some tips about what to expect if you’re [un]lucky enough to be that bald bloke near the aisle that gets picked… from one who’s been there!
First things first – you don’t get picked at random. If you want to avoid the ordeal, there’s more you can do than just grow a full head of hair and book seats in the gods. Performers are keen to pick folk who they think will be good sports, so your laugher and your smile are all factors in getting picked. I once went to a show a few days after spraining my ankle. I deliberately sat towards the back and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was no use – within 20 seconds of his appearing onstage, the clown had already spotted me. I saw him do it. He told a terrible gag as his opening line, and then he scanned the audience, monitoring each person’s response. I groaned at the gag, and he zoned in on my groan like a heat seeking missile. My fate was sealed. So if you don’t want to get picked, don’t let anyone know you’re having a good time.
The clown isn’t the only character who might pick on you of course. More often than not it’s the Dame who picks a bloke from the audience, sidling up to him with a lustful eye, looking him up and down and cooing about how good looking he is, how tall and strong and butch. Obviously, the gag plays on the incongruity of a big burley man in a frock pretending to be a lustful lady, eyeing up a big butch omi from the audience. So the bigger and butcher and straighter you seem, the better the gag will work, and the more likely you are to be picked. Against type, I was the victim of this sort of approach in Beauty and the Beast at Stratford East. Later in the show, the dame called me up again to help her unlock the secret door to the castle or some similar frivolous pretext. ‘Oooh!’ she exclaimed, squeezing my right bicep, ‘that’s impressive!’ For a split second I was pleased. I’d been going to the gym. Who doesn’t want to hear that they’ve been achieving results? Then she leant across and squeezed my left bicep. ‘Hmmmm,’ she frowned, ‘not so impressive…’ and the theatre erupted. What do you do when five hundred complete strangers are howling with laugher over the idea that you are an excessive masturbater? You just have to suck it up.
Inevitably when you are called up there is a bit of introductory chit chat, and depending on what you do for a living you might want to get yourself a new career. I’d suggest something totally straightforward, like a postman, or perhaps a gynaecologist. When I was pulled up at Wimbledon a few years ago I tried to get away with saying I was a teacher, but the clown soon sniffed me out. ‘Of what?’ he asked suspiciously, and I had to admit that I teach Film Studies. ‘That means you just get paid for sitting around and watching films all day, doesn’t it?’ Well, I mean it’s only the truth. One of the most fascinating things about being pulled onstage is that you can see how hard the performers are working. The sweat was literally pouring off this poor comic as he desperately tried to turn my mundane life into something funny. From the stage you can’t see anything of the audience at all, just the lights – a fiery wall of heat with a dark, expectant cavern beyond. ‘What film did you teach most recently?’ I Know Where I’m Going. He couldn’t make anything at all of this, finally settling on the lame reposte ‘no you don’t, do you?’ Finally he managed to rescue the routine by reverting to some one-man cross talk material, presumably from his adult act – ‘I thought you might say Saw… Did you see Saw? No, I never saw Saw. What do you mean you never saw Saw, I saw Saw…’ etc. Kudos to him for dragging it out of his head, although we were both clearly aware that Saw wasn’t the best franchise to use in a series of gags directed at children.
The best moments of people onstage are at schools’ performances when they get a teacher up. That’s because of course every kid in the theatre knows the teacher and completely revels in the idea of their humiliation. But there are perils to going to these shows if you’re not actually… a teacher. I booked for an early matinee of Dick Whittington at Stratford East this year. The hot barman was highly amused when I went to advance order my interval drink, and rightly so because there wasn’t a soul in the bar at any point since everyone else in the theatre was either 9 years old, or a teacher. I’d booked for the circle, but had been bumped down to the end of a row halfway up the stalls. Dangerous. I mean can you imagine being called up in a school’s performance and then having to admit that you’re NOT a teacher, just a single middle-aged bloke who goes to pantos alone in the middle of the week in November? You’d be lucky not to get arrested. As soon as the lights went down I nipped into the back row. I was right to do so as before long the Dame pulled out a young male teacher to ‘help her’ make ice cream. This involved him sitting at a potter’s wheel with the Dame sitting close behind him and both of them with their hands on a fruity looking nipple of pink ‘ice cream’. ‘Oooooh,’ cooed the Dame, ‘what sensitive hands you’ve got,’ as the kids chanted ‘Mr Hussain! Mr Hussain!’ in joyous delight.