Anti-panto

The ethics of Christmas theatre programming

The publicity material for the Royal Court Liverpool's Christmas production, Merry Ding Dong, a new play by Fred Lawless, includes the following, telling disclaimer: "This play contains strong language and is not suitable for bleedin' kids who will spend the entire time running round the place, shouting, eating sweets and being sick. Merry Christmas." Quite.

There's nothing new about British theatres attempting to take the critical high ground in a season invariably defined by formulaic pantos and celebrity career-revival. In fact, theatrically-challenging, adult-pleasing and/or pantomime-inverting Christmas productions are now as common as the kind of traditional family entertainment that places like the Chipping Norton Theatre are famous for.

Consider the Times' "20 must-see Christmas shows": I count only five "traditional" pantos. Even some of the shows on the list with familiar-sounding premises -- Hansel and Gretel at the Bristol Old Vic, say, or Peter Pan at Newcastle's Northern Stage -- are self-consciously choosing to swerve away from pantomimic convention. The former, created by the very fashionable Kneehigh, describes itself as set in "a world that is sweet but never sugary". Peter Pan aims to "rediscover the charm of the original story that has enchanted children for nearly 100 years".

This is, of course, no bad thing. Viv Groskop potentially put it best in a piece she wrote for the New Statesman back in Christmas 2005: "I first saw Danny La Rue in Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Bath when I was eight years old and I knew a travesty when I saw it," she shuddered. "Even at that age I was appalled that this passed for entertainment and that adults were encouraging us to laugh and enjoy it."

Her article was a bitter dissection of the way Ian McKellen and Simon Callow were post-ironically espousing panto as "the new cool". It's worth pointing this out, I think, because the Royal Court Liverpool would perhaps do well to bear in mind the example of Kevin Spacey's three mid-noughties pantomimes at the Old Vic (the first two starring Sir Ian, the third written by Stephen Fry), which received criticism from various quarters for being middle-aged, luvvie affairs that, by tacitly discouraging children from attending, rather missed the point.

The pantomime season is the only time of the year that children under the age of ten are encouraged (or allowed) to actually visit a theatre -- one thinks immediately of Brief Encounter, and the Jesson children's famous complaint that "there aren't any pantomimes in June". So it seems to me rather curmudgeonly to programme a Christmas production that constitutes just another child-unfriendly occasion. Far more admirable, I'd suggest, to make Christmas theatre about introducing pre-teens on mandatory school trips to proper theatre -- full of style, trickery and colour -- in a manner that, who knows, might just encourage them to explore a different theatre space in June, even though there aren't any pantomimes.

Happily, several Christmas 2009 productions are taking exactly this approach. The Edinburgh Fringe-conquering Fuel are behind The Forest at the Young Vic, a multimedia performance utilising 19 real trees that aims to take 5 to 7 year olds "somewhere unlike anywhere you've been". And an innovative take on Cinderella, which premiered at the Lyric Hammersmith last Christmas and is playing at Warwick Arts Centre this winter, represents a compelling marriage of the Christmassy and the credible.

Like Northern's Stage's Peter Pan, this is a faithfully literary Cinderella: it is, save for a few minor deviations, a judicious adaptation of the Grimm brothers' two-centuries-old tale, complete with heel amputation and Kill Bill-style eyeball plucking. This undoubtedly makes for some welcome relief in a children's entertainment world populated by chastity ring-wearing high school kids and Mormon vampires. It's elegantly written as well. "One . . . time," begins a narrator, sidestepping the age-old opening line. "Cinderella dear, you really are so ostentatiously humble," groans the wicked stepmother later on, drawing chuckles from the adults in the audience (and confused frowns from the little ones).

But the production is so particularly successful, I think, because of its theatrical sophistication. Performed by a cast of just six (and a musician), it tosses together dance, puppetry, live music, non-linear time structures and a relentlessly inventive approach to narrative in such a condensed way that it feels, at every turn, like a celebration of what theatre can do -- and what its rivals, television, cinema and video-games, just can't. Kids leave this Cinderella energised (yelling, indeed) about the theatre. That, I think, is what Christmas theatre-programming should be about.

 

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser