Tuesday, 15 February 2011

It isn't always the show that matters

So what happened at the theatrical event of the decade?

By popular demand, I return to a subject that I've allowed to drift off the radar in the last couple of weeks, that of the ‘adult pantomime’ Danielle and I attended, Alison Wonderbra.

Note that as an established blogger – in terms of sheer volume at least (I reached the 300 mark last month) – I now feel entitled to indulge in some journalistic licence. ‘Popular demand’ in this instance means that one of my sons once said to me ‘oh, by the way, that pantomime – was it any good?’ More of a request than a demand, perhaps, but at least he is quite popular.

It was an evening that made up in dynamism for what it lacked in subtlety, which meant it was spectacularly dynamic, as there was a lot of making up to be done.

The liveliness didn't just start with the show but was clear even before the curtain went up: there was music playing when we arrived and women dancing to it between the rows of seats. In fact, that rather set the tone of the evening. If you're not familiar with the cultural heights scaled in Britain over the last twenty years or so, you may not have seen the hordes of hen party revellers that regularly invade our town centres or our airports (from which they set off to inflict themselves on places like Prague who wonder in bemusement what hit them, as they clear up the mess next day). They’re noisy, boisterous and drunken, but unlike the male equivalent, stag parties, they generally remain quite good-humoured and more amusing than frightening.

The atmosphere at the pantomime was like that. You can take drinks into the auditorium and the audience seized the opportunity to do so. It was also predominantly female, I guess two-thirds women in large groups, calling to each other from row to row, and obviously out to enjoy themselves as much as they possibly could. Just like hen parties, except that the age range was wider.

The show itself was humorous, if that’s the word for something which depends principally on references to parts of the anatomy and the various uses to which they can be put, the joke being little more than the fact that these things are not generally mentioned on a public stage. There was quite a lot of heckling from  the audience, rather like what happens at a stand-up comedy show, and it's perhaps a measure of the subtlety of the evening that one particularly forceful actress quipped wittily in response to some abuse, ‘if I’d wanted to hear from an arsehole, I’d have farted.’

Yes, I think that pretty well sums up the literary qualities of entertainment.

So it was an experience where the pleasure came not so much from watching the stage as from watching the audience.

There has been a lot of talk in this country in recent years about the fate of the white working class, the feeling being that it tends to be ignored by a society more concerned with its wealthiest sections or with minorities that attract more attention from the media.

Well, the audience was exclusively white, astonishing in heavily multi-ethnic Luton. And the working class was heavily represented. So it was fascinating that the show, in so far as it made many points at all, was explicitly liberationist on gender issues: the Alison of the title is a young woman being brutalised by a macho boyfriend; at the end she decides to throw him over and go off with White Rabbit (yes, yes, there are allusions to the Lewis Carroll story) who is performed by another woman. This assertion of the legitimacy of gay love was greeted with shouts of approval and applause by the audience, something that would have been unthinkable even two or three decades ago.

It was only a couple of weeks later that the English Defence League, self-proclaimed champions of the white working class, marched through Luton in a calculated but unsuccessful attempt to provoke the ethnic minority community. The atmosphere of tolerance and good humour at the pantomime felt like a great antidote to the toxic emanations of the march. If the alternative is the EDL, I’d choose Alison Wonderbra any day of the week.

In fact, the atmosphere of warmth and friendliness of the evening reminded me of great evenings I spent years ago, when I was living in a Yorkshire mining village, and the height of the week was a Ceilidh evening at the local working men's club. The Castle Club in Conisbrough had that same easy, gentle and generous cordiality.

The Labour Party, to which I belong, was originally built by the white working class. Today, that class is itself a minority. Labour needs to find a way to bring it back in and integrate it with the other minorities that, at its best, it defends and from which it draws its support. Because if  Labour doesn’t speak for it the racists will.

The EDL: give me Alison Wonderbra any day
Easy to write that, but it's basically a call to action, isn't it? To myself. Not one I've done anything about so far, like actually attending a Labour Party meeting. Still I've had the thought, and a good thought's a good starting point, don't you agree?

At any rate, a good though's a lot more than I was expecting to get from Alison Wonderbra.

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