Monday, 27 December 2010
Day out with six-year-old
With the clock ticking, The Girl and I raced to the theatre from the train stop, me holding her hand tightly as we hurried across the Dublin streets amid the heavily falling snow. We slipped and slid across the bridge over the River Liffey, then through old doorways in stone walls, and down a maze of alleyways to finally arrive just in time to see the panto.
Let me back up a minute. When we first moved here our neighbours talked excitedly about talking their children to this year’s panto, and I discovered you can only smile and nod for so long before admitting you don’t know what anyone’s talking about. Pantomimes, I discovered, are vaudevillian children’s plays, part of the ritual of growing up in Britain and Ireland and especially popular around Christmas time.
A typical panto tells a loosely adapted fairy tale – Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Robin Hood and, in our case, Aladdin -- and contains the following vital ingredients:
1.) A boyish leading man;
2.) The princess he falls for;
3.) A hammy villain, usually with black clothes and facial hair;
4.) One or more middle-aged men in drag;
5.) A backup group of singers and dancers.
Famous actors and pop stars here often take a break from their regular career to ham it up in pantos – BBC actor John Barrowman was in a panto last year, and another this year starred “Jedward,” the Irish singing duo enjoying their fifteen minutes of adoration among prepubescent girls here. This panto’s villain was played by a former member of Ireland’s boy band Boyzone, which had a similar bout of fame several years ago.
While pantos cater to children, with broad acting, bright costumes and clown comedy, the lines are inevitably loaded with lines thrown over the children’s heads at the parents – racy double entendres, pop-culture references and political humour.
This was my first panto, but I suspect this year they threw in many more political jabs than usual. In the last several weeks, of course, Ireland has seen a national bankruptcy, a bailout, a split government, a new election, an emergency budget and a nation of furious voters, and the performers dropped more than one reference to unpopular Taoiseach (TEE-shak, or Prime Minister) Brian Cowan.
Aladdin: Mother, we can take this money and move to someplace like .... Ireland!
Aladdin’s mother: Well, we’ll be the only people with money there.
Aladdin: Look princess - the treasure’s gone! Brian Cowen must have been here!
Back to The Girl and I. I’d booked tickets for the panto, knowing she was six already and would not be a little girl for many more Christmases. Getting to Dublin, though, posed some problems. On top of so much financial and political turmoil, Ireland -- which ordinarily receives only a light dusting of snow once or twice a winter -- has been hit by weeks of snowstorms. Sometimes roads have been completely impassable; we have all missed days of work, and at times the whole country seemed to stop.
You see, we can only leave our property via a narrow one-lane road that runs, with no shoulder or railing, along the edge of a canal, and when covered with ice it is treacherous indeed. One of our neighbours plunged their car straight into the water, and had to be fished out with our neighbour’s tractor. We must drive very slowly, so the nearest village has become much further away.
We started out for Dublin around 10:30 am, three hours before the play was to begin --- the trip ordinarily takes an hour and a half. We drove slowly and carefully to the bus stop, and so missed the bus. We drove fifteen miles to a village with a train station –no train would make it in time. Finally we drove to another village to catch the electric tram, which could take us into the city ... as it turned out, very slowly.
We ran through the streets and made it just in time for the panto, sliding into the box office like it was home plate, and because the weather kept so many people away, we could ignore our tickets for the nosebleed section and sit in the middle of the front row. Panto actors ask children in the audience for advice, and they spoke right to The Girl, to her amazement.
Good things we weren’t a few minutes later; one family was, and all the stage-lights turned on them as they walked down the aisle. All the actors stopped onstage to make fun of the latecomers, and everyone turned out to sing the “You’re Very Very Late” song.
The play had singing, dancing, costumes, a “flying” carpet, puffs of smoke, showers of sparks and, at times, a complete absence of a fourth wall. The children went wild, and as we left she talked about the play excitedly to herself and anyone who would listen.
It turned out the night wasn’t over yet. First we walked down Grafton Street, Dublin’s shopping district, its fairy-tale decorations and light displays peeking through the heavy snowfall. We ran into one of the panto actors quite by chance, and thanked her. The Girl found a mobile phone in the snow, left, it later turned out, by a French immigrant, and we had to track them down -- I called a random contact in France, found someone who spoke English, asked them who had just called them, asked for someone who would be accompanying that person in Ireland, and so on. We eventually got them their phone back.
Then we had to wait for buses that never came, until we got one whose destination was close enough. The normally hour-long ride took four and a half hours, and amid the long wait and stranger conversations, The Girl found a large audience who would hear about her day.