For the past five years I have been involved in Kampala Amateur Dramatic Society's annual pantomimes, staged at the National Theatre in or around the first week of December. Where else in the world could a bunch of amateurs stage their productions at the National Theatre?
Uganda's National Theatre is a marvellous place. Constructed in the late 1950s to a standard British theatre design, the stalls seat around 230, with a further 120 or so in the circle. It is blessed with great acoustics, but goes sadly under-used despite the Ugandan love for the performing arts (especially music and dance). It has also suffered from under-investment over the years, which manifests itself in outdated sound and lighting systems and dilapidated stage (and backstage) facilities. Nevertheless, when the lights go down and the curtain is lifted, it is still a great venue.
Pantomime is a peculiarly British theatre form. It contains a number of specific ingredients: slapstick, cross-dressing, songs, satire, vulgarity, romance, villainy and animals, woven into the fabric of a traditional children's story, with a requirement for plenty of audience participation. First-time panto audiences usually find the whole thing bewildering, but most (regardless of their background or culture) come to appreciate the mayhem, which makes it puzzling that, to the best of my knowledge, it remains such an exclusively English language theatre art form.
Three out of the last five Kampala pantomimes have been written and directed by the remarkable GP, Dr Dick Stockley, whose creative talents (some might say, not I) burn even brighter than his medical..... First was The Pied Piper of Hamelin, featuring a fiendish plot to swindle the Piper of his payment. Second came The Emperor's New Clothes, a satire based on Kampala's attempts to ready itself to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2007. And most recently came a good-humoured reworking of Dick Whittington. Between these I directed TinTin Goes Bananas - in which the intrepid Belgian boy detective uncovers a wicked plan to export Uganda's gorillas - and Robin Hood of Mabira Forest, where the evil Sheriff of Kampalaham, in cahoots with the greedy sugar barons, plans the destruction of Mabira Forest, but is foiled by the noble Robin and his band of merry women.
This year - well, KADS' current plan is for a Shrek/Cinderella combo, Donkey, Prince Charming and all, provisionally entitled Shrekerella. I'm sure it will be riotous entertainment in the best tradition of Kampala panto. Too many competing professional and personal commitments mean that, for once, I shall not be involved, except as a first-time member of the audience.