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What does it take to put on a LGBTI adult pantomime like the one at the RVT?

What does it take to put on a LGBTI adult pantomime like the one at the RVT?

Pantomime dames are a fixture of the genre | Photo: Flickr

Pantomime is inherently queer.

Every year, families across Britain gather together for a night out in a local theatre. And what do they see? Most likely, it is a child’s first encounter with queer culture.

There’s cross-dressing everywhere, and it’s not just the pantomime dame either. Male protagonists, especially if they’re meant to be young boys, are played by women. This ‘butch’ hero will always get the princess at the end.

And then there’s the referencing of pop culture, the songs, the innuendo, the campness of it all.

Origins of the pantomime

Drag didn’t begin with RuPaul | Photo: Wikimedia 

Pantomime is often traced back to the influence of Italian theatre, commedia dell’arte, in the 17th century. But we can trace its origins a little earlier than that.

In Shakespeare’s time, boys played women on stage. The boys wore dresses, make up, and kissed and danced with men on stage.

Audiences were very familiar with this inherently queer idea. And it wasn’t like a theatre today where people sit quietly. Patrons yelled, heckled, and the actors embraced the participation.

Many of these plays were also based on familiar stories or ideas. While excellence (like Hamlet, for example) has survived the centuries, much of what was performed was pulp. It was bawdy, loud, and bad but likely very enjoyable.

Theatres became a playhouse for LGBTI people; a den for actors, creators and sex workers.

Oliver Cromwell shut down the theatres and other queer spaces in 1642. But with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, urban queerness returned.

And with it, smaller gay venues opened. The Three Potters, in Cripplegate (where the Barbican stands today), opened especially for young queer men.

While little survives of these shows, one diary remembers seeing what we would call a ‘drag queen’ today. The artist performed as a sort of ‘fairy’ godmother. This kind of queer cabaret exploded, with more venues and spaces opening up. Mainstream theatre got inspired.

And that is where the Italians came in. With its stock characters, theatre began to mix both cabaret and these comedic tropes. Taking English folk lore and classic stories and mixing it with the origins of queer culture, the pantomime was born.

Rise of the modern adult panto

Sometimes there’s cross-dressing, sometimes it just a full on lesbian romp | Photo: Cambridge Arts Centre/Facebook

Pantomimes strictly for adults have gained rapid popularity in the past decade.

Hearkening back to what audiences loved as kids, but this time with a lot more dick jokes, this recipe has been a winner for many theatres.

One of the most popular adult pantos in the UK is at the historic Royal Vauxhall Tavern in London. This year the bar is putting on their version of Aladdin, entitled Rubbed.

Catia Ciarico, the producer of Rubbed, reveals the process begins in February.

First, Ciarico and the writers pick the story. And then they work out how to update it and do a RVT ‘twist’.

‘We haven’t done Aladdin for a long time,’ Ciarico told Gay Star News. ‘We were worried because the original is a bit racist..’

Rubbed has a lot of political themes, with references to Brexit and immigration.

‘The scriptwriters decided to do it as a post-Aladdin story. We ask what would happen to the genie and the wishes that have been granted.

‘The genie is a non-binary type character. Aladdin has become this ridiculous posh knob that evades paying his taxes.’

Royal Vauxhall Tavern’s Rubbed

Rubbed at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern | Photo: Supplied

From deciding on a script, Ciarico goes to casting. This year, it was easy, as the five-person cast from the 2017 show returned.

‘We like to be loyal to people. If not, we go to casting new people. While it’s important [to have LGBTI people playing those parts], it’s not always 100%.’

Director Tim McArthur then sees a draft of the script in July.

As someone who has played a dame several times, he will give suggestions on how and when to include pantomime tropes like songs and audience participation.

‘It has to be fast-paced,’ he told GSN. ‘By act two, people are going to be quite merry.

‘You don’t want anything too complicated. As it goes on, it has to get even more sily.’

Another draft will be finished by September.

Because the cast have returned, writers Paul Joseph and Tim Benzie have written to the actors’ strengths.

‘This year, it’s the second year we all have this combination of working together,’ McArthur added. ‘They’re an amazing group.’

Ciarico will then lay out the process of the marketing and organize photoshoots with the cast.

‘That can be like herding cats,’ she jokes. ‘Dragging people into one room is unbelievable,’ she said.

There’s about a two week rehearsal period. While it doesn’t sound like a long time, it’s more than enough.

‘For panto, it’s kind of standard. It’s not Shakespeare – let’s face it!’ she said.

What makes a queer adult panto different to anything else you’ll see

If you see the pantomime twice, you’ll likely see a very different show both times.

‘There’s a lot to the show that’s organic,’ Ciarico said. ‘What Tim does is structure it very well. Once the cast know the structure, and they’ve got the audience on board, the actors can play briefly and come back.’

But what makes the Royal Vauxhall Tavern show different to other pantomimes?

‘The main difference is the RVT one is for adults and you can say the word cunt,’ McArthur joked.

‘The RVT gives a chance for the audience to release their inner child. It’s dirty, it’s not safe, you can be more political and very on the edge.

‘With a traditional panto, it’s a lot more innuendo-based.’

Ciarico agrees, saying: ‘Pantomime is the one bit of theatre everybody goes to see as children.

She added: ‘Pantos represent a type of family that many LGBTI people don’t want or have. It’s about claiming this piece of culture back. It’s about making it part of the language again.’

Rubbed at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern will run until 3 January. Book tickets now.