Everybody loves the baddie. The heroes are kind and caring and want to save the world and all the fluffy animals but the villain is more over-the-top, gets the best lines and songs, and though the kids are scared of them, it’s the good kind of scared. The baddie is the most fun to watch and is the most fun character to play.
That was what I had to keep in mind when playing the Witch in Hansel and Gretel.
There was more pressure on me than there was for even the actors playing the title characters. The show was called Hansel and Gretel, but nobody was watching it for Hansel and Gretel. They were the “straight men” of the story, simply going through the story everybody has memorised. Get lost in the wood, find house made out of sweets, escape house. The kids and the adults watching the show watched it for the characters that acted over-the-top and made lame jokes that still got a laugh. They watched it for the Witch and her treacherous ghost henchman Gus.
From the pantomime’s very inception, it was decided that these two characters would be the ones most beloved by kids. The Witch used and abused Gus, and Gus heroically helps defeat the Witch and her evil plan, but kids were supposed to love both characters. It was like the Aladdin pantomimes; the two superstars were meant to be Aladdin’s well-meaning brother Wishy-Washy and his evil uncle Abanazar, even though the two had different alignments. Both, however, were silly, and kids liked silly.
So that was the best part of me playing the Witch and Harry playing Gus; we could be as silly as we wanted because that’s what they came to see. The story was set in Medieval times, yet we had the Witch say, ‘I will conquer the world and bring suffering to all!’ and Gus reply, ‘You mean like Donald Trump plans to?’ We had the Witch create a potion with body parts, and Gus quip, ‘Ugh, not exactly Mary Berry, more like Mary Shelley.’ The jokes were awful, but they were supposed to be awful, and the audience still laughed. I had never been the best comedian, so I liked getting laughter for bad jokes.
I admit, the Witch in the play had things I wanted to have. I mean, I didn’t want to wear a pointed hat and a Ronald McDonald wig, but who wouldn’t want the power to conjure things just by throwing random objects into a pot? The Witch in the play had a ghost helper (he betrayed her, but still) and an army of skeletons; if I had those, I’d never have to do housecleaning again. If I had a ghost helper, I’d be nice to him, so he wouldn’t even betray me.
The Witch and Gus were not exactly the best of friends in the play, but Harry and I got on pretty well. We’d have a chat before and after our rehearsals, and after work was done, we’d have a pint or two. Even then, we’d briefly practice our lines outside the pub, laughing at each other’s performances. We even discussed our characters and made up backstories for them; Harry claimed that Gus was the ghost of the Witch’s ex-boyfriend who she killed when she found out he was having an affair.
It was our penultimate show. Just this one and one on New Year’s Eve. We had our usual silly fun on stage, but with a twinge of tragedy to it, knowing full well it was not to last. Still, everything went according to plan. We delivered our lines, told our awful jokes and everyone laughed and booed at me. Booing is associated with hatred, but this was the good type of booing, like the Witch brought the good type of fear. Everybody loves the baddie.
The Witch captured Hansel and Gretel, only for them to escape thanks to Gus. The Witch raised a skeleton army that recaptured Hansel and Gretel, only for her spell to be reversed and for her to be turned good. Gus called up this little girl to come up on stage to receive a goody bag, one with chocolates that he called “magic”.
So with another performance done, off me and Harry went for our celebratory pints. We ordered at the bar and then went outside onto one of the picnic tables. We were the only ones outside again; good, all the better to get silly.
We didn’t rehearse right away, however. Instead, we spent some time just chatting about what we did over Christmas. We spoke about our respective families, our respective gifts, our respective dinners.
Then we decided to do a bit more practice.
Then the skeletons came.
The skeleton army from the play, the men in the black jumpsuits with printed bones. As soon as I saw them, I laughed, thinking maybe Harry had a surprise for me or this was some weird way of giving me my Christmas present (the thought that it might even be a proposal crossed my mind as well).
Harry didn’t seem to be expecting them though, if his pale face and bulging eyes were any indication.
They weren’t men in jumpsuits. They were human-shaped piles of dripping black oil, with human bones stuck in them. Their heads held skulls, with oil dripping from their sockets and noses. Their torsos held ribs, their arms and legs held the corresponding rotting bones. They stunk of mildew.
I couldn’t run. I couldn’t scream.
One of them grabbed me by the wrist, and it felt like its hand and my arm had fused together into one. It leered at me, the skull in its head seemingly laughing silent laughter.
‘Here you are,’ it said to me in a raspy voice. It turned to Harry. ‘The girl didn’t eat the magic chocolates,’ it said to him in a sing-song tone.
‘You liked playing the witch, didn’t you?’ Another skeleton creature neared me, holding a cup of what looked like hot chocolate. ‘Well, how would you like to have the witch’s power? All the witch’s evil?’
The creature that had me in his grasp chuckled. ‘It was so much fun pretending to be evil. Just imagine how much fun it would be actually being evil! You could finally do all the things you’ve ever wanted to do, but were too afraid to!’
My stomach twisted, but I wasn’t sure if it had more to do with the monsters standing before me or because I felt there might actually be some truth in what it was saying. In my mind’s eye, I could actually clearly see myself commanding this army, not just to tidy up my house but ripping the flesh off of people who I have wanted to see suffer. The miserable little politicians we mocked in the panto. That bloke who played his radio too loud. The thought made me smile a little, and I hadn’t even drunk their hot chocolate.
‘All you have to do is drink this concoction,’ said the creature leering over me, snatching the cup from his companion, ‘and we’re all yours.’ He brought it to my nose to give me a good smell; it wasn’t too different from the whiff of the gingerbread hot chocolates they sold around this time of year.
Before it could even touch my lips, it fell to the ground.
I was free from the creature’s grasp, for the creature no longer had anything to grasp with. Its arm had eroded away, and the bones that it contained clattered to the floor next to the sizzling liquid. In seconds, it fully eroded away into nothing but bones as its fellow monsters retreated.
Standing before me was another strange creature: a young girl with bleach-white skin and hair and long black fingernails. A toy bunny rested under her arm.
‘I couldn’t let them get you,’ she said, gesturing towards her bunny, ‘The witch was his favourite character!’
Everybody loves the baddie.