PAUL BIRCHPHANTOM OF THE PANTOMIME
Uncle George should never have allowed it. Gaye and pantomimes? Anyone could see they shouldn't be mixed. But once Gaye got him started about the history of the Commedia del Arte she was past his guard. There's nothing Uncle George likes half so much as spouting knowledgeably about anything he knows enough to spout knowledgeably about — which is practically everything. Well, maybe not football. However, the Italian Comedy is one of those things. At least, I think he called it that. I wasn't really listening, so I may have got it muddled up with that film where the cars chase down the steps in front of that church with a wedding going on. Apparently, the English Pantomime is its direct ancestor or its offspring or something, and this is terribly important because of tradition and culture and all that. I can't see it myself. What have Jack and the Beanstalk to do with Pierrot and Columbine? And Dick Whittington I know comes from real history, only he was Lord Mayor of London not thrice but four times.
I don't think Gaye paid much attention either — just let Uncle George ramble on until he was well and truly mellowed, then hit him with it. He could hardly say no, after all that guff about how important it was. Of course, he ought to have realised that anything important is precisely what Gaye oughtn't to be let loose on, but those blue eyes and curls get to him every time. It's like what Doctor Johnson said about second marriages — the triumph of hope over experience.
I suppose it was my fault too. I mean, Gaye in charge of Special Effects? I should have sounded the warning knell, but doesn't loyalty to one's twin have its part in life's Italian pageant too? Besides, I quite like a good catastrophe, in moderation.
I got one.
It might have been all right if Uncle George hadn't been too busy to keep an eye on her, but not only was he up to his ears in his latest invention, he was playing the part of the wicked Uncle, which suited him right down to the ground but had a lot of lines he wasn't so sure he could remember. Mostly insults, and declarations of megalomaniac intent, which he should have been able to do standing on his head, but he was a bit worried about getting the right ones in the right place. For weeks it was hard to tell whether he was in a bad mood and shouting at us, or just practising.
I don't know if you've ever been involved in one of these shows. Nothing seems to be ready until the last minute. Costumes, props, scenery. Principals fumbling for their words. Makeup. Lighting. And, of course, special effects. All along Gaye had been promising something special in the way of special effects for when Aladdin rubbed the ring or summoned the slave of the lamp, but even at the final dress rehearsal all we got was Gaye shouting "tinkle, tinkle, tinkle" and "whoosh". Which was neither especially effective nor particularly indicative of what was to come.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Or rather, a principal boy, who, in the topsy-turvy way of such things, was actually Miss Hardcastle from the library, with Mr Johns the estate agent dressed up as an improbably buxom woman of what Uncle George says used to be called "a certain age". And this is what our elders and betters consider suitable and wholesome fare for the absorbent mind of the immature child — some of the very same people who complain about Tom and Jerry because the cat tries to eat the mouse! They must be bonkers. We're probably all going to end up psychologically scarred for life, with sexual complexes coming out of our ears. Look at me. Last time I checked I was definitely a boy, I think, but they had me playing a girl, one of the Princess's revealingly clad handmaidens, who dresses up as a boy so she can go to the bazaar without being recognised. I ask you.
Anyhow, apart from the usual dropped lines and missed entrances, and some rowdies at the back of the hall, the opening night went swimmingly. Until the cave scene. You know how it goes. Aladdin's in a bit of a spot, his mobile phone can't get a signal, and he's despairingly wondering what to do, until it crosses his mind that he's still got this magic ring he found in his fish and chips in Act I Scene I, which he'd completely forgotten about until now on account of burning the ironing and falling in love with the Princess and stuff like that. An everyday story of country folk.
In the darkness of the cave, lit only by the gloomy spotlights, Aladdin rubbed the ring. Into the pregnant pause came a mutter from the wings, then a tinkling sound that might have originated in a file called magic.wav. The Fairy of the Ring hopped up onto her podium, triggering a very loud bang and a cloud of purple smoke. As it cleared, a startled audience saw once-white purpled draperies floating up into the flies, and an undressed overweight fairy, purple up to the waist, knocked onto an ample — and purple — behind. In my considered opinion, they should have cast someone less Renoiresque. The fairy screamed and exited left. Or possibly right. I can never remember whether it's left facing the audience or left facing the stage. Or flat on your back facing the roof, as in Angela Throckmorton's case.
Uncle George and I looked at each other and nodded. "Nitrogen tri-iodide," we said. "How much did the little idiot use?" he asked.
I have to hand it to Miss Hardcastle. Once she stopped spluttering and coughing, she picked up the ring and shook it. "Bother," she said, "it's blown. That's the worst of these freebie magics. Can't rely on them at all. All the same if I really needed it. Oh no, I did! What shall I do?"
The audience were on the ball. "Rub the lamp!"
"The lamp? You want me to rub the lamp?" asked Aladdin. "Why?"
This was a bit tricky. A confused mumbling in which the words "magic" and "genie" were just discernible floated back.
"All right," said Aladdin. "I'll rub the lamp. Here goes."
That was the cue for the slave of the lamp to enter, stage right. Which he did. It was also the cue for the second of Gaye's special effects. Green smoke began to issue from the mouth of the lamp and spill over onto the floor. Stannic chloride, from the dusty smell. In the centre of the stage it seemed to heap itself up into a broad column — spilling down from dry ice above, I guessed. Speckled green light, hard on the eyes, gradually solidified into a frightening form, towering above Aladdin and anchored on the lamp.
The slave of the lamp hovered uncertainly. "Er … I am the slave of the lamp, O master, what … "
"I AM THE GENIE OF THE LAMP," boomed the apparition. "WHAT IS THY COMMAND?"
"Er … no, I think that's me. Isn't it?"
The genie turned a green visage towards him. "AND PRAY WHO ART THOU?" Terrified, the slave of the lamp backed right off the stage into the orchestra pit, knocked himself out, and took no further part in the proceedings.
Aladdin gingerly held the lamp at arm's length. "You mean me, not him. I think."
"WHAT IS THY COMMAND, MASTER NOT'IM?"
"WHAT WOULDST THOU THAT I WHAT, MASTER NOT'IM? I WOT NOT."
"What? I'm not Not'im! I'm Aladdin! … What?"
"A lad in tights!" A hopelessly confused Aladdin grabbed a line from another scene.
"No, I'm not … I'm what?"
"HOW DO YOU DO, WATT!"
"How do I do what?"
A smug Gaye appeared beside us in the wings. "Great, isn't he?"
Uncle George glowered. "Do you know how much those display lasers cost me? Who said you could use them?"
"You did, Uncle. You said I could use anything I needed."
Aladdin and the genie were still at it.
"No, I'm not, I want a palace."
"HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED A PALACE?"
"HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED A WHAT?"
"Yes. What? No."
"WHY ARE YOU SO UNCERTAIN?"
"WHY DO YOU THINK YOU'RE NOT?"
Gaye said, "I'd better shut him up or they'll go on for hours."
I was puzzled. "Who's playing the genie?"
"Nobody. It's one of those psychiatrist programs. That's why it doesn't make any sense." Gaye opened a laptop and hammered at the keyboard.
"WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE NOT, WATT?"
"What? What?" Aladdin was coming unglued at the seams. "All I want is to get out of this cave with lots of money and a palace!"
"Yes!" Gaye slammed the return key.
"THY WISH IS MY COMMAND, O MASTER. I SEND THEE TO THY PALACE."
Cue the third of Gaye's effects. A blinding white flash from the rear of the stage that blew away the genie's smoke and left the audience blinking and rubbing their eyes. As the curtains closed and the dazzling afterimages lingered, no one noticed that Gaye had forgotten to switch off Uncle George's lasers, but had allowed them to stay focused on the back-cloth instead. By the time anyone realised, flames were fanning across the roof too high for the portable fire extinguishers to reach.
Does anyone have a spare theatre we could borrow?
© Paul Birch, 20th Dec. 2003.