Johnny McKnight in Sleeping Beauty
IF YOU'RE planning on seeing Sleeping Beauty at Stirling's MacRobert this season – and all the omens suggest you should – don't set too much store by the advertised running time. Last year's festive offering, Mother Goose, lasted anything between two hours and two hours 40 minutes depending on how carried away writer and star Johnny McKnight became during any given performance.
"I got into a wee bit of trouble for that," laughs McKnight who, at 32, is at the vanguard of a new generation of great Scottish dames. "The longest show was when I caught two wee wifies on a matinee with a bottle of vodka in their bag, literally mid-pour. You can't not rip them apart for a whole show. That's what makes the show: wee Ina and Betty sitting there half-cut on a Monday afternoon at one o'clock. I love that."
It sounds a riot, but if the Ayrshire-born McKnight has blossomed into what last year The Scotsman called "a sparkling new Scottish panto star", it was far from inevitable. For a start, the teenage McKnight was nearly put off panto for life by a spot of exuberant audience participation on a P7 theatre trip to the Ayr Gaiety. "I remember the two dames coming into the audience to get somebody up and I was terrified," he says.
Then, having developed an interest in theatre in spite of this formative trauma, he went on to take a place on the RSAMD's contemporary performance practice course – a programme better known for turning out avant garde experimenters than mainstream dames. "When we came out of drama school, we thought we were going to be pure radical live artists," he says. "We did shows with baked beans, if I remember right."
Things might have continued along the same leftfield path, with McKnight and fellow graduate Julie Brown running their own small company Random Accomplice, had director Andy Arnold not spotted his potential as a cross-dressing leading lady when he met him at an interview for the Arches Theatre's directors' scheme. "I thought, 'Should I be insulted by that?'" he laughs.
A season as an Ugly Sister at Loch Lomond gave him a taste for the panto life and, after a series of shows in Dunfermline working with Tony Roper, he joined the cast of The Wizard of Oz in Stirling. "I played the lion like a dame," he says. "I think that's the only character I'm able to play: myself and myself with stilettos on."
Before he knew it, though, he was running the whole show. Sleeping Beauty is his fourth MacRobert panto as dame and his third as writer. They have been successful enough to travel: this season, the Byre Theatre in St Andrews is doing his Mother Goose and Platform in Easterhouse is doing his Cinderella. "I did a performance course where you learn to play yourself and that's quite handy being a dame," he says. "The dame's not unlike me and I'm quite good at being myself. Just before I graduated, I started going to pantos because I had pals who were in them and I really got it. It's quite like live art because there's no fourth wall and you interact. I came to the realisation that theatre is all about entertainment. That's its primary function. If I go to it and I'm bored, it's not worked." His background makes the MacRobert show an invigorating fusion. On the one hand, it has the traditional variety elements that make pantomime such a popular force in Scotland. As well as McKnight's dame, inspired by the sharp-talking women in his own matriarchal family, this show even features that dying breed, a female principal boy in the shape of Michelle Gallagher (cue a round of "I Kissed a Girl and I Liked It"). All the boos, hisses and he's-behind-yous will be firmly in place.
On the other hand, the show has borrowed the cheeky self-referential elements from Glasgow's Tron pantos with their knowing subversion of convention. This is a world where characters train at Panto Academy to become principal girls and where the wicked witch turns out to be a pretty good mother.
In addition to that, McKnight is a strong believer in the power of narrative. "I get really frustrated when I see pantos and they aren't telling a story or the story is superfluous to the tricks," says McKnight, who sets to work on each script as early as January. "You need to make your story clear and you need to have characters. If you're writing a baddie, why are they a baddie? In Sleeping Beauty, why does she cast a spell on a new born baby? I need to find a logic for why she would do that."
What it means is that his experience on stage in Stirling does not feel so different to his high-camp adventures with Random Accomplice in autobiographical comedies such as Little Johnny's Big Gay Musical. "With the Little Johnny shows and with the pantos, you've got to charm the audience and take them on a journey with you," he says. "They're quite similar. You know the audience is there, there's no fourth wall and everybody's in this together. All my stuff puts the audience first."
He promises more Little Johnny japes later in 2010 when his company collaborates with the National Theatre of Scotland, but first there is another gear change.
Four days after the last night of Sleeping Beauty, he goes into rehearsals as director of a new play by Douglas Maxwell. Promises Promises is a dark classroom thriller about a supply teacher, played by Joanna Tope, and a six-year-old Somali girl who is accused of witchcraft. "It's a really different style of play for Douglas and for us as a company," he says.
"It's theatre noir, horrific and brilliant. When I read the script, I thought if I don't do this justice, I will hate myself for ever."
Sleeping Beauty, MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, today until 31 December