At the rehearsals for Cinderella, the choreographer was clapping out the beat while ten young dancers jumped and twirled. It was a festival of Nike socks, North Face joggers, Calvin Klein T-shirts and scooped up hair. It wasn’t a Glasgow I’m accustomed to seeing. The hall was littered with pumpkins, baskets of apples, a trolley with three geese sticking out of it. There was a lot of glitter, hand sanitiser, and a samovar of tea. The show would open at the King’s Theatre in less than a week, yet the atmosphere was all laughter and promise.
I have a thing for pantomime. I’ll spare you my theory that the best of it is better than King Lear and The Cherry Orchard put together. (Though that might make quite a show – ‘Trofimov, the Fool’s behind you!’) I’ll only say that, in the hands of talented people with a sense of European comedy, a passion for absurdity and politics, panto can become the people’s artform par excellence, risqué and harmless, topical and decadent, filled to the brim with local colour and expert patter. The King’s panto has become a Scottish institution at Christmas, and returns this year after the Covid hiatus. I think I’ve seen every one of Elaine C. Smith’s appearances at the King’s. I’m an ardent fan. She can do more with a look or with a sly Glaswegian turn of phrase than most actors can do with a soliloquy.
The Glasgow pantomime was once the preserve of Rikki Fulton and Jack Milroy, the comic duo Francie and Josie, who kept audiences roaring for years with their savage campery. They were pure variety theatre, and wouldn’t have been out of place at the Britannia Panopticon near the Trongate, said to be the world’s oldest surviving music hall, where Stan Laurel made his stage debut in 1906. After his years in Hollywood, Stan briefly returned to Glasgow in the 1940s and was greeted by five thousand people on the concourse at Central Station. Francie and Josie didn’t quite have his reach, but going far with the locals is what matters in variety. After they got a show on the telly they were sent round the country to open TV rental shops. When they arrived in Airdrie, the crowd was so huge and the mayhem so great that the shop windows were shattered.
I once told Elaine C. Smith about seeing Rikki Fulton in the King’s panto when I was a kid. He called his elves onto the stage and named them: ‘Glens, Hutchison, Robertsons and Stepek’. It got a huge laugh. Now, if you’d told that joke in Edinburgh, nobody would have got it. The names were from a TV advert for four local electrical shops. If comedy is the point where recognition meets novelty, Fulton had it in spades. You can’t sit in the King’s Theatre without hearing the ghosts of past laughter from audiences who, after their long year, bought tickets for the Christmas panto to take delight in being witnessed.
‘It’s a celebration of local culture,’ Smith told me. The day I visited, she was working in a side room next to where the dancers were birling around. She’s the show’s undisputed star and the biggest theatre draw in Scotland. Like her predecessors as King’s headliners, she’s well known from TV, currently in the hit series Two Doors Down on the BBC and before that as Rab C. Nesbitt’s wife, Mary. ‘I got interested in panto when it came up with a new concept,’ she said. ‘No cross-dressing. Women playing the ugly sisters instead of just the eye candy. We got a lot of resistance from the old guard, but it worked. As a form, panto has a great ability to reinvent itself. I worked with the Wildcat and 7:84 theatre companies, who questioned a lot of the old prejudices. You know, too much theatre forgets the audience. It’s not about being a stereotypical man or a stereotypical woman, but about being funny. That’s a quiet revolution.’
While I sat in the corner, she began to work through a tongue-twister routine with Johnny Mac, who plays Buttons, involving a certain Shirley Shaw who shines shoes in the shoe-shine shop in Sighthill and her sister Sharon, who sells sushi in Shieldhall. There’s a third actor in the scene, Darren Brownlie, playing Dandini, who manages to blend local customs with airs and graces, adding to the tale of Shirley Shaw, and passing it to Buttons, and then to Elaine C. Smith’s Fairy Godmother, and back again, the story getting more complicated and harder to say with each pass. Smith knows how to mine the gag for every ounce of gold, growing exasperated, growing competitive, full of a sense of comic jeopardy that someone will utter the wrong word beginning with ‘sh’. By that point, they’d only been rehearsing for eight days, but the routine seemed perfect.
‘That’s the first time we’ve got it right,’ Mac said. In life, he has the same degree of likeability that Buttons has onstage. His catchphrase, which now appears on a T-shirt, is ‘I’m enjoying myself!’
‘You’re bringing us good luck,’ Smith added. She never ignores her audience, even when it’s an audience of one, falling off his chair.
There are gags about Covid – ‘I’ll sell you two for a Pfizer’ – and gags about the Barras (a market in the East End of Glasgow), jokes about Paisley, Govan, bagpipes, Just Eat, COP26 and Strictly Come Dancing. There are jokes about Boris Johnson. ‘I’m saying “arse” for now, but I’ll think of something else later,’ Smith said.
Back in the rehearsal hall, the ugly sisters (played with homegirl brio by Angela Darcy and Joanne McGuinness) are doing their ‘I Will Survive’ number. They portray the sisters as a pair of ‘hairy pies’, meaning they wear their lack of refinement as a badge of honour. (They sing something very funny about wearing boob tubes in December.) I’ve been in rehearsals before, with plays of my own, and the camaraderie is so infectious you can feel bereft for weeks afterwards. Especially with a panto company, perhaps, which is working hard hours and spreading essential cheer, while staying in tune and gadding up and down in glittery high heels.
In his new memoir, Windswept & Interesting, Billy Connolly describes his attempt to connect with audiences.Some jokes are universal – Stan Laurel worked that out – but some invite the communion of people on their own ground. Whenever he was playing a new venue, Connolly would go round the town in the afternoon, trying to see ‘what people there saw every day’. It was a ritual and it would pay off during the performance. ‘I just soaked up the place,’ he writes, ‘then that night something would come into my head to talk about.’ A story about an ill-tempered fishmonger might be funny, but if it’s the ill-tempered fishmonger in your main street, the hilarity takes on the power of social fact, and that’s the essence of pantomime. Cinderella is a folk tale reworked by Charles Perrault in Histoires ou contes du temps passé in 1697, then further shaped by the Brothers Grimm and Disney, and here returned to the folk tradition by being tied to local things.
‘It goes like a train,’ the director, Kathryn Rooney, said to the cast. She was giving notes to some of the younger performers, including Tinashe Warikandwa, playing Cinderella. They have to project to fill the space. ‘Just remember how big your ballgown is, how big Elaine is. And Johnny.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ Smith joked.
‘Don’t let the stage swallow you.’
There were a few topical edits. ‘The scene where the guys run across the stage and bump hands. Probably not.’
Twelve days later, at 6.45 p.m., the foyer at the King’s was full of excited kids carrying Day-Glo windmills and bags of sweets. School groups and youth clubs had been bussed in from Greenock and East Kilbride. With 15 minutes until curtain-up, I put in a Zoom call to Elaine C. Smith’s dressing room. She was sitting in front of a mirror, donning a huge shining wig. I told her she looked splendid and asked her what colour she would call the wig. ‘I’d say platinum, verging on a blue rinse. I’m an ageing fairy, if you don’t mind. It’s Doris Day as a Glasgow clippie.’
‘That’s a bus conductress …’
‘Correct. Glamorous all the way. And a wee bit gallus.’
‘And there’s glitter, of course.’
‘Oh, I ooze glitter, darling.’
Her dresser placed the tiara on top. Then she put the frock over Smith’s head in one go, a pink confection of tartan and rhinestones. The actress bent down to her dressing table to take a slug of tea from a mug with a big E on it.
‘Does it feel nice to be back?’
She told me she felt emotional. ‘I’m 63, and I find I’m exactly where I want to be, on stage in my own city, with rows and rows of people, up to the rafters, laughing and enjoying something life-affirming. It’s a rainy night in Glasgow, and this Covid thing is at our heels, but we’re winning.’
She put on a dod of pink lippy.
‘Have a great show,’ I said. ‘I’ll see you on 31 December. I’ve got ten seats.’