The actor Sir Ian McKellen and the comedian John Bishop are stepping out on to the West End stage over Christmas in the matriarch of all pantomimes, Mother Goose. They have already been to Brighton and before their unusually long season is over they will have played in six more cities, from Liverpool to Dublin, finishing in Cardiff on April Fools’ Day.
The pairing of a mid-career comic and a beloved octogenarian classical actor is a twist on the time-honoured tradition of roping in crowd-pulling celebrities to fatten up theatre’s own golden-egg-laying goose. A trip to see panto has become an annual family and school outing, underwriting the theatre world’s overheads for the rest of the year, hence the dismay when the Covid pandemic laid waste last year’s season.
There have been other arrivistes on the pantomime scene: Aladdin, in 1861, gave us Widow Twankey, in a story taken from the 1001 Nights; Jack and the Beanstalk, in 1886, gave us Dame Durden (later Trott), in a borrowing from English fairytale. But Mother Goose, played by Sir Ian as the owner of a financially imperilled animal sanctuary in the redundant Debenhams building on Oxford Street in London, predates them all, in a show derived from an ancient fable that keeps on giving.
Its pantomime pedigree goes back to 1806, when the celebrated Regency clown Joseph Grimaldi upstaged Harlequin in a commedia dell’arte-derived confection which, much to its creator’s surprise, ran for 92 nights at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and raked in £20,000 (more than £1.5m in today’s money). Grimaldi’s handwritten script of the final scenes of Harlequin and Mother Goose is among the treasures held by the Library of Birmingham.
However, it was the ageing music hall star Dan Leno who, in 1902, elevated the cross-dressing Mother Goose into today’s flamboyantly outfitted purveyor of double entendres. Batting away misgivings about who is laughing at whom, there are now specialist dames, often with strong local ties and their own catchphrases, such as Berwick Kaler’s “Me babbies, me bairns”. Kaler was lured out of retirement for The Adventures of Granny Goose in York this year, while Clive Rowe, who has described Mother Goose as “the Hamlet of panto”, is currently playing his 15th at London’s Hackney Empire.
There are reasons why some stories survive. This morality tale about the dangers of greed and impatience, attributed to Aesop in the sixth century BC, has hissed its truth through more than two millennia. In recent decades, it has been co-opted as a metaphor for political short-termism on both the left and the right. The McKellen-Bishop Mother Goose, scripted by the Liverpudlian Jonathan Harvey, includes a pig in a school tie called Boris, a baddie named Cruella Braverman and lots of couplets rhyming with “Truss”.
In this of all years, everyone needs a chance to boo and hiss. Baffling to outsiders – as the New York Times discovered when it recently sent two critics out on the circuit – pantomime is a populist art form that speaks of and for the people in all their folly and vivacity. It’s silly and rude, with fabulous frocks. Long may it continue to lay its golden eggs.