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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Elaine C Smith on the HMT panto and SuBo musical

Published in Scotland on Sunday

IT WOULD be no surprise if Alex Salmond was the butt of a pantomime joke or two this season, but only at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, can you see a routine that comes at the First Minister's personal request.

As the MSP for Aberdeenshire East, Salmond takes a special interest in the HMT panto and, this time, he got a suggestion in early.

"The last couple of years he's come to see the show and brings all his office staff," says Elaine C Smith, who stars as Fairy Flora MacDonald. "He loves pantomime - he loves Parliament, what's the difference? - and he said, 'If you're doing Aberdeen, you should do The Quine Who Does The Strip At Inverurie.' It was by June Imrie, who was a famous Grampian TV newsreader and she did this song at New Year. He prodded us in that direction and when I listened to it, I thought, 'We could do something funny with that.'"

So after a sketch in which she makes a mangled attempt at getting her chops around a few choice phrases in the Doric, Smith will be launching into a reworked version of the comic song, discarding bloomers and sundry panto garments as she goes, before revealing an Aberdeen football strip. Let's hope Wee Eck approves.

It's Smith's third year in the city and she has become something of an institution, although the prospect of the Rab C Nesbitt star returning for a fourth consecutive year is uncertain. Having been cast to play Susan Boyle in a forthcoming stage bio-drama, she is likely to find herself tied up for some time.

Telling the rags-to-riches story of the Britain's Got Talent singer, I Dreamed A Dream launches in Newcastle in March for an initial 11-city UK tour that includes Aberdeen and Inverness. Boyle herself will appear on stage for the show's finale.

At some point after that, the show is set to go international. Thanks to the power of YouTube, SuBo's Cinderella-like story is a global phenomenon, and news of the show even made the New York Times. Edinburgh-trained producer Michael Harrison is in discussion with US promoters about taking it over there, perhaps with simultaneous productions on both sides of the Atlantic and in Australia. More dates in the UK and a run in the West End also seem likely.

It means that Smith, who has agreed not to talk in detail about the show until the press campaign in February, will either be otherwise engaged or catching her breath come the next panto season.

Her involvement came after a chance remark made by Boyle in a TV interview. She was asked who she'd like to play her in a film of her life and, being a long-time fan of Mary Doll in Rab C Nesbitt, she gave an answer that sent Smith's website into overdrive. "I joked to Michael Harrison that we should do the stage show," says Smith. "He laughed then phoned me back ten minutes later and said we should do it now."

However well known Smith is, her fame is nothing on a SuBo scale and the level of attention generated by the story made her think carefully about the responsibility. "I never think it's a shoo-in," she says. "It's got to be theatrical, it's got to be relevant and it's got to connect."

Only two years ago, Smith was bringing the house down with a SuBo routine in Cinderella, her first HMT panto, and now she'll be playing her straight. The panto connection doesn't end there. Alan McHugh, Smith's co-writer on I Dreamed A Dream, is the writer of Jack And The Beanstalk and stars as dame Heather MacBlether. He'll also have a part in the SuBo show. Meanwhile, in Kennedy Aitchison, the two shows share a musical director.

This is the tight creative team - plus director Alex Norton - that prompted Scotsman theatre critic Joyce McMillan to call the HMT production "probably the best traditional panto in Scotland". "I feel very creative in this environment," says Smith, who insists the principal performers have an extra week of rehearsal. "It drives me crazy that the most expensive and technically difficult shows of the year get two weeks to rehearse."

Smith, after all, takes her panto seriously. When she took time out to do a BA in drama at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University a few years ago, she wrote her thesis on the history of pantomime. Sitting in the HMT's glass-fronted restaurant, she talks unprompted for a healthy ten minutes on her love of this vibrant popular tradition, name-checking everything from an 1811 panto called Harlequin in Leith to the razzamatazz of Stanley Baxter and the off-beat reinventions of Borderline and Wildcat theatre companies.

"There is a notion that because it's fun and because it looks easy, the skills involved are not the same skills that are involved in doing an Ibsen, but they are," says the actor, who'll be making a spectacular entrance flying over the heads of the audience. "The skills are very important and very few people can do them. Loads of panto actors can do straight, but put that the other way round, it doesn't necessarily work. If Irn-Bru's our other national drink, then panto is the other national theatre."

From her point of view, a show such as Jack And The Beanstalk will work only if she throws caution to the wind. "You've got to come down to the audience and go, 'I'm going to make an arse of myself,'_" she says. "If you're vain, forget it. When I look at myself in the mirror in my Beyoncé outfit or whatever, the question is, 'Is it funny? Yeah. We'll do it.' If you start being vain about it, you'll lose the audience."

And there's nothing Elaine C Smith likes more than keeping an audience on side. "I said to Alex Norton a few years ago, 'Do you think I'm psychotic?' He said, 'Why?' I'd walked on to the stage of the King's and the theatre was empty and I said, 'Because I feel more at home here than I do in the rehearsal room.'"
• Jack And The Beanstalk is at His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen, until 7 January;
• I Dreamed A Dream is at His Majesty's Theatre, 3-7 April and Eden Court, Inverness, 11-16 June

© Mark Fisher, 2011

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