Glasgow is a city of pantomimes. Just in this one place you can see not one but two big shows from chain behemoth Qdos (Jack and the Beanstalk at the King’s Theatre and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the gargantuan auditorium at the SECC) as well as two independent professional productions (Pinocchio at the Pavilion, and my own hot tip, Cinderfella at the Tron theatre). This year though, I went for a different type of panto altogether.
The Britannia Pantopticon first opened in 1859, and operated as a music hall and later (intermittently) as a cinematograph until it closed in 1938 and the space was converted to a storeroom. In 2003 a false ceiling suspended from either side of the balcony was taken away to reveal the decaying but intact upper section, complete with carved wooden ceiling roses, bench pew seating and proscenium. The venue is little changed since that moment, the paintwork still peeling and in places hanging off the walls in festoons. The charm of this Miss Haversham-like state is that one can imagine the room, empty and in darkness for over sixty years, rehearsing its memories of the greats who performed there – Dan Leno, Bessie Bellwood, Harry Lauder and (apparently his first stage experience in an amateur show of 1906) Stan Laurel. The back of the stage area is just a bare brick wall, the sawn off joists of the removed false ceiling still jut out of the front of balcony where once perhaps there would have been ornate plasterwork. The design of the room is reminiscent of surviving music halls of a similar vintage such as Wilton’s and Hoxton Hall in London, although the ceiling is grander than in both of those venues, and the complex vaulting over the painted out windows is unique as far as I know. The horseshoe balcony is supported by slender pillars, and (as my companion noted) the balcony sides run right up to the stage, close enough for dissatisfied customers to express their displeasure at the Acts by standing up and pissing on the performers below. The hall is looked after by the volunteers of the Britannia Panopticon Music Hall Trust, and there’s a brilliant display showing some of the old handbills and publicity from the hall’s history, with an ongoing archiving project of related materials at https://pickardspapers.gla.ac.uk. Their annual pantomime is only on for a brief run to raise funds for the ongoing preservation of the hall. I was determined to catch it, if only for an excuse to see the venue itself, although I barely knew what I was expecting to see. The ticket site advises you to wrap up warm and bring hot water bottles because there is no heating.
The pantomime itself was a little miracle – a miraculous demonstration of what you can do with almost nothing. It was charmingly chaotic, with enthusiastic performers of varied talents working with unreliable microphones, a karaoke machine and just a few nets of twinkling fairy lights for a set. Initially the audience were somewhat reluctant to enter into the spirit of the responses – perhaps like us, they were unsure what to expect after a somewhat underwhelming opening song and dance. ‘Who wants to be in my gang?’ asked ‘Little Willie’ but the half-arsed response was left to stand. Later we got to know each other by shaking hands with the folk to the left of us, and telling the folk to the right to ‘mind their own bloody business’. It was left to Fairy Effie, the Dame (and author) to pull things together. ‘Join hands everyone!’ she prompted sweetly, before going full Glaswegian drag queen: ‘We’re going to try and CONTACT THE LIVING!!’
After this, everyone relaxed. We knew we were in safe hands. On reflection we should have been primed. The venue hosts a regular drag cabaret night, The Drag Opticon Show and also offered an adult panto in the late night slot. It certainly felt like a cleaned up version of an adult drag panto and I think that’s what it was, and not just because Fairy Effie kept having to remind the cast ‘it’s a family show, a FAMILY SHOW’ as they were making the ghoulies gags in the ghost scene. Not surprisingly the two drag queens were the stars of the show. The Evil Queen Carabose was particularly spectacular – a cadaverously thin glamour queen with eye-lashes inches long. When we booed she lapped it up, basking in our approbation and after a perfectly timed beat rewarded us with a gracious ‘Thank You!’
The kids in the audience loved it, and were completely unconcerned with the missed cues, the dodgy sound system and the many, many moments of dead time as the cast tried to remember what the hell was going on. I particularly loved it when Fairy Effie came down into the audience and spoke to one of the little girls, fairy to princess. ‘This isn’t school’ she explained, ‘if you think someone’s chasing Sleeping Beauty, don’t put your hand up and wait for permission to speak, you can scream and shout – it’s a pantomime!’ Meanwhile more boisterous kids were shouting their heads off at the action on stage.
The show had a joyous delight in its own chaos. One of the performing boys was a certain star of the future, with high-kicking legs and a fearless self-confidence in the dance moves he offered to accompany Sleeping Beauty’s epic rendition of ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’. He was no singer however, and his full blown off-key rendition of a similarly histrionic rock ballad was a comic high point. The deliberate revelling in the awfulness of X Factor style singing was brilliantly guyed by Fairy Effie who gave us a verse and first chorus to ‘I Will Always Love You’ that left us trembling on the knife-edge between anxiety and anticipation of the final belting key change. The relief was palpable when the climax came and Witney herself took over the honours.
Panto always indulges in a hefty dose of self-reflexivity. When Douglas Byng advises King Rat to ‘remember in your gloom/ there’s a Guinness waiting in my room’ he describes a continuity between 1936 and the fights between Fairy Effie and Queen Carabose about the script in the second act of this show. The script itself makes an appearance onstage when Effie hands it to Carabose in despair ‘Look what I’ve got for you!’ she screamed, ‘perhaps you’d like to learn it?’… ‘What do you think boys and girls?’ asked Carabose nonchalantly, ‘Should I learn the script?’ And of course we roared ‘NO!’