The Tron Theatre Bar is tranquil on a Monday afternoon. There is a murmur of conversation in the corner and the sound of the coffee machine is the only interruption to the soft saxophone playing overhead. “This,” says Johnny McKnight, flustered and breathless from pantomime rehearsals, “is the calm before the storm.”
I wonder what to expect from Johnny. Becoming easily one of Scotland’s most admired pantomime writers, directors and performers since his graduation from the, then, RSAMD over ten years ago, it is hard not to imagine the flamboyant charisma of his panto dames joining me at the table.
Sure enough, I hear him, chatting to everyone at the bar, before I see him. He may be dressed down in a woolly jumper and jeans, but his warm hello and theatrical feign of exhaustion ring similar to his festive performances. “See I just play myself,” he says, with a swig of diet coke between breaths, “I’m no an ‘actor actor’ you know? I just dae the same thing.”
While the cadence of his camp slang may never alter, McKnight’s ideas certainly do. “It’s funny cause I always think I’m doing things dead traditional and then everybody is like, eh no.” He divides his time between the Macrobert Arts Centre in Stirling where he performed The Little Mermaid last year and The Tron Theatre Company where he established himself with Agniezska Scrooge in 2012. The pantomime genre may be taking a beating from critics for its predictability but McKnight’s twist on the traditional model is never the same twice.
As we speak, Johnny is prepping for his first tech run of The Snaw Queen, a Glasgow twist on the Hans Christian Andersen tale. The show will also see the reprisal of his loud-mouthed female Santa, Kristine Cagney Kringle, who won him rave reviews in Miracle on 34 Parnie Street in 2014. I ask what brought a Santa-Clause dame into the Danish fairytale, “It just wisnae working for me. The original story is really Christian; kinda fabley. It didn’t work me being the dame as the Snow Queen. It didn’t feel right balanced-wise. I needed someone else who was cynical but not evil.”
It is that balance which Johnny seems to understand better than any other pantomime writer. A “cynical but not evil” quality to his leading roles creates a narrative which is both sarcastic and smart without feeling mean-spirited. He tells me that ad-libbing is the part he loves most. “I remember years ago going to see the Krankies and her [Janette Tough’s] mic pouch fell off when she was doing a dance and they made a joke about it and I genuinely couldn’t breathe for laughing,
“Then I went back at the end of the run and the same thing happened at the same point and I was absolutely devastated, I think it’s cheap. The point of panto is there’s no fourth wall and the audience is a part of it.”
Where the traditional panto relies heavily upon inclusive jokes (“He’s behind you!”) in a bid to stay family-friendly, Johnny’s script leaves room for a more personalised audience participation style. No one, he insists, is off-limits for a slagging. It is less Widow Twankey, more your outspoken auntie at the Christmas dinner table. He talks at length about the joy of giving people their Christmas night out. However, I wonder if there is more to the genre than simply the chance to dress up for the theatre.
“Well, I think panto is classless,” he tells me, pondering why he is so personally attached. “There isn’t a lot of working-class theatre the now, I think it’s a lot of middle class, first-world stories. It’s either abject misery working-class stories like your Men Should Weep, or its stories of a middle- class couple who have got a middle-class problem.”
Indeed class is something to which he keeps returning. Originally from Ardrossan, Johnny did not step foot on a train until the age of 17. With no drama classes at home, he was in his late teens before he could afford to join Strathclyde Theatre for Youth.
As far as he is concerned, there is not enough opportunity for working-class actors. We talk about the lack of drama in high schools and the disadvantage this creates when applying for conservatoires. He pauses, frowning for the first time in our conversation.
“Like so, when I auditioned for drama school the first time I was 17. I did my monologue and they asked: ‘what made you decide to read the part of Othello?’
“I said I just love that speech and I related.
“They asked: ‘Do you think you would be cast as Othello?’
“I said well I’m a bit young, so not right now.
“And they said: ‘What about the fact that he’s black?’
“And I was like, is he?
“I didn’t know, I had never touched Shakespeare before, we’d never done drama. I thought ‘Moor’ meant he worked on a farm.”
He laughs at himself but is notably unfazed by this assertion. It is hard to imagine Johnny visibly embarrassed. He rolls his eyes and takes a swig of diet coke.
There is always a current undertone to Johnny’s writing. Whether it be jokes about “folk punching lumps out each other in Argos on Black Friday” or the state of Scottish politics, he tells me it is important to look at the year gone by for material.
How then is 2016, a particularly note-worthy year for political and cultural milestones, reflected in The Snaw Queen?
He laughs and then sighs regretfully before answering.
“We’ve had what I’ve called the Donald Trump problem all last week. We came into rehearsals and I had to just take out any reference to him for a couple of days. Cause for a bit I just couldn’t hear his name, it’s depressing.”
Perhaps this is a testament to the particularly regressive nature of the year gone by: that even pantomime is failing to create a laugh out of it all. His voice picks up: “then again, now that Trump has said all that crap about Hamilton and theatre being a safe space, we had to put a joke in.”
At the end of the day, he insists, “pantomime is a way of taking your mind off the misery; it’s about good triumphing over evil in the classic tradition.”
“I think,” he ponders, “That is exactly what we need right now.”
The Snaw Queen is at The Tron Theatre until January 7 2017