I write this sitting on a scratched parquet floor in the meeting room in St Just town hall with my back against a defunct 1950’s heating unit. It’s dark and raining, but the curtains are drawn and I can hear the pantomime going on in the hall below me. The members of the cast who aren’t in the current scene are sprawled all around me. I am ostensibly here as a ‘chaperone’ to prevent off-stage rioting by the large number of children here, but I have nothing to do. The atmosphere is recognisably familial, tinged with a feeling of a sleepy cabaret. Everyone is in full make-up (dark foundation and lipstick even for 6 year olds, even for 80 year olds). The teenage girls on my right are doing their maths homework on the floor, dressed as candy-stripe skirted ‘villagers’ in puffy sleeves. The adults, mostly dressed as nuns, are telling stories about body piercing and vastly enjoying the mild sense of transgression this imparts because as well as being dressed as nuns they are of mixed ages, genders and sexual orientations.
I watched the performance last night. I liked it for a set of reasons that relate to the current atmosphere in the green room:
Firstly, it engages everybody in the room in a tight social contract. There’s only a nominal division between the audience and the actors. Added to this fluidity, the crowd on and off stage is porous, borderless, spilling across many types of social boundary, though not place. We in the audience know many of the actors, since we all inhabit the same small place, and more than that, we fully understand that we are required to noisily do our part in the call-and-response, laugher, applause. There’s a lot of performance for the audience to do.
Secondly, there’s not a medium that transcends time and class so well as a pantomime. This year, and here, it’s Puss-in-Boots. As a fairy tale it’s possibly the least dark, though it opens with a father’s death and gross familial unfairness, progressing to include much deception and an execution. Nobody in the story is very nice. But all this is quite usual and doesn’t seem to matter. Beneath it there’s the magic of talking animals and the hope of individuals escaping their destinies. So much we know about all fairy tales – but isn’t it extraordinary and wonderful that this type of story is accepted as endlessly relevant (why?) and adaptable to huge societal shifts.
From the green room I can hear the youngest son’s big solo number through the floor. It’s ‘Somebody to Love’ by Queen. (why is Queen so acceptable, especially on the margins, given their profile?) The stout woman with a black ponytail playing the youngest son is singing it very loudly to cover the scene change into the Ogre’s castle, which I recall is especially scuffly. She sings surprisingly and extravagantly well.
And here’s a third thing I like: we’re surrounded all the time by people with qualities you’d never guess at. And here in the town hall these can be manifested and appreciated – quite simply. We float are of our complicated lives where we might be unhappy or ungenerous or unlucky. And in honouring / enjoying this singular moment, we are all snipped out of our usual judgements and criticisms because our job is to be here and to appreciate everything good we can find. If we weren’t going to do that we would not have bought tickets to see the pantomime. There’s general suspension and elevation. We are at our best.
Finally, something I especially like - I am allowed to sit in the green room and just observe all of this. I am not at all pressed to participate beyond what feels quite comfortable to me, which today, upstairs, is not at all.
Beneath me now I can hear huge applause as the performance comes to an end. The final number has been belted out by everyone packed into the hall downstairs, wether onstage or not. It’s ‘I’m a believer’.