Saturday would have seen the curtain go up on the glittering, magical, laughter-filled and completely subversive piece of theatre that is His Majesty’s panto.
Really? Subversive? Aberdeen’s family-friendly, slapstick and effects-filled Christmas pantomime?
Absolutely, according Alan McHugh who, if it had not been for the coronavirus, would have been taking to the stage in his 17th outing as His Majesty’s Dame in Beauty And The Beast.
“Panto is the best example of the subversion of authority and that is one of the things at the heart of it,” said Alan. “The baddies in panto are always higher status, they are people in power who abuse their power.
“The goodies are always working class. It is always the lower class people getting the better of the higher class people and winning out at the end of the day.”
What panto is about
And that subversion extends to the audience too, especially the children, said the actor, writer and director, who pens the script for HMT’s panto every year.
“For 99% of the time, these kids are sat in school and told to keep quiet, speak when they are spoken to, not allowed to be cheeky, not allowed to shout out. Then suddenly, one afternoon a year, these people in authority – teachers, headmasters, parents – take them along to the theatre. They are thrown together in a darkened room with 800 of their compatriots and told ‘you are allowed to stand up and scream at these adults, you are allowed to disagree with them, you are allowed to be rude to them and we will encourage it’.
‘It’s complete subversion of authority and that, for me, is what panto is about, on stage and off stage.”
Unfortunately, we are missing our dose of festive subversion – and sparkling panto magic – as theatres fall dark due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Alan feels that absence keenly.
“It is strange, bizarre and unsettling. This is the first year I will not have done a professional panto since leaving drama college in 1991. It would have been my 30th consecutive year in professional panto,” he said.
“It is a complete shock to the system in a lot of ways,” said Alan, adding that at least he would be spending Christmas at home for the first time in three decades.
Brilliant when its back
But even in these bleak times the permanently upbeat actor, writer and director has a positive for fans who had eagerly been looking forward to Beauty And The Beast until it was postponed to next year.
“For the people of Aberdeen, the comfort is that the script for next year is already written,” said Alan, laughing. “Beauty And The Beast was all ready to go, so short of updating and tweaking it for next year, it’s already there… and it will be brilliant when it comes back.”
Alan clearly loves every minute of his years bringing joy and laughter to Aberdeen audiences and has some stand-out memories of his previous festive shows since his Dame debut at HMT in 2004.
“I have lots and lots of memories,” he said. “Working with Jimmy Osmond was a stand out. He was possibly one of the nicest, most generous, most talented professionals I have ever worked with.
“Then there was eight years with Elaine C Smith, 12 years with Jordan Young,” he added.
Top panto double acts
His pairing with Jordan, of Scot Squad and River City fame, led to them being described as one of the top panto double acts in the country. And with Elaine C in the mix, HMT’s pantos had a string of shows which smashed box office records and won five-star reviews. Elaine bowed out of Aberdeen’s panto in 2016, while Jordan last appeared in 2018.
Other well known names to join Alan on stage have included West End star Lee Mead, Neighbours’ stalwarts Stefan Dennis and Alan Fletcher, dancer Louie Spence, and Aberdeen’s own Call The Midwife star, Laura Main.
However, Alan has a more abiding, and touching memory than the top flight of professionals he has worked with, the friends he’s made, the effects he’s worked with or the big numbers he has done.
“It’s not a single memory, but something I look forward to every year and something I treasure every year. It’s the growing bond that I have with not just the city of Aberdeen, but that audience. I feel I know that audience personally and the bond grows stronger each year,” he said.
“So my stand-out memory is the growing level of, well, love that goes both ways between me and the audience.”
Brings community together
Panto isn’t just about spectacular effects, dazzling costumes, show-stopping songs and hilarious comedy routines. It has a purpose, and an important one at that, said Alan.
“For me, panto is the biggest community event in any city’s year, Aberdeen being no different. Pantomime is the one thing that brings an entire community together,” he said.
“It doesn’t matter what age you are, what sex you are, what creed you are, rich or poor, Tory, Labour or SNP, it brings 1,000 people together, twice a day, in one room, to bond together for good to win against evil, for love to win the day.
“For that moment, an entire community comes together as one and shares an experience. I think it is such an important thing for any community.”
Over his 30 years in pantomime, Alan has seen many changes as the festive shows adjust to different tastes, different outlooks and different social trends.
Evolve or die
“It’s evolved, but in a positive way,” he said. “If things don’t evolve they die. I’m not one of these Luddites as far as theatre and panto is concerned who say: ‘No, no, it worked this way 40 or 50 years ago, so that’s what we must stick with’. I’m a great believer in the traditions of panto and there are some traditions that make panto which I will fight for, for all time.
“But it has evolved with technology, with comic sensibilities, the increase of television. Technology has brought us things like flying cars and 3D special effects. With computer games, kids have different attention spans, likes and interests.
Alan added panto has also reflected trends in popular culture with more TV stars and celebrities being added into the mix of shows across the country.
“If we don’t cater for the interests of our audience, young and old, they won’t come and see us,” he said.
“But that doesn’t take away from what is at the heart of panto and that is the story. It’s the love story, the fight between good and evil and hanging on to those traditions, kids have been brought up with.”
Roots are centuries old
Pantomime’s roots go back over centuries. The form has its origins in commedia dell’arte, an early style of Italian theatre dating from the 1500s. The concept of the dame finds its origins in Shakespeare’s days, when women were barred from taking to the stage.
“As well as these traditions going back hundreds of years, in Scotland in particular, the tradition of the performance style is very much music hall and variety,” said Alan.
“The pantos going back to the 1930s and 40s were three or four hours long and packed with speciality acts. It was almost like a variety show linked tenuously to the story. They would have dancing dogs, singers, jugglers, trapeze artists, magicians… everything.”
From the 1970s, panto moved away from that old-school variety style… but Alan thinks it is making a comeback.
Variety makes a comeback
“The route of where variety and music hall is coming back into panto is, believe it or not, shows like Britain’s Got Talent. BGT is the epitome of a celebration of old variety acts. It has singers, it’s got dancers, it’s got ventriloquists, it’s got sword-swallowers… it’s got everything. Since the advent of that Qdos and major panto companies in Britain are booking the winners of these acts for their pantos.”
“That is bringing a big change in the make-up of the acts in UK pantos these days… but that’s part of the evolution we have talked about, but it’s a regressive evolution going back to the way pantos were in the 50s and 60s.”
When it comes to panto, Alan knows his stuff. Which might be why Qdos, who produce HMT’s panto with Aberdeen Performing Arts, have him writing virtually all their pantomimes across the country.
So he clearly knows how to make sure the festive treat is a present the whole family can enjoy. Alan, who last year not only starred in and wrote HMT’s Cinderella but also directed it, says the secret of a good panto comes down to two things.
“The audience come to a panto with expectations based on tradition and their experience of being regulars at that theatre and who they know on stage, so you give them what they want to keep them happy. But then you surprise them by putting a twist on it and giving them something different. It’s the mix of the traditional and the new… which is what we have been talking about in evolving.
Has to be family values
“And there has to be family values. It is something where you should be able to bring the entire family, no matter what age, how young, how old and they all get something equal out of it.”
For now, though, His Majesty’s is dark as the war against Covid-19 rages on. But Alan has high hopes for the future.
“The news that has broken about these vaccines can give us a pretty good hope we can have a normal panto season for next year. That’s a comfort,” said Alan.
“My one hope for the new year – and it’s combined with theatre, combined with panto and combined with just life in general – is that these vaccines being touted are the answers to our prayers and problems. I hope that throughout 2021, we can move back to normality.
“Forget theatre, forget panto, we’re just a small part of human life. Life and human life is more important than that. Once we get life back to normal, everything else – including panto – will fall into place.”