Alan McHugh has played in enough pantomimes down the years to ensure It’s Behind You! reeks of authenticity, albeit the heightened theatrics of the genre. Set in the cramped dressing room of some impoverished provincial theatre – the star on the door is cut out of yellow paper – this two-hander proves to be a more subtle character piece than you might first expect, given the opening clash of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and a rubber chicken.
This isn’t, it turns out, just about professional jealousy; it’s about family.
McHugh and co-star Paul James Corrigan play Norrie and Nicky, respectively performing as the Dame and Simple Simon (brother of Jack, of Beanstalk fame). Things are not going well between them, however: 62 shows into the run, Norrie’s accusing Nicky of missing cues, going “off-book” and rushing through the show just to meet some film producers to help boost his day-time soap career. It’s done well enough, although Norrie’s bitchy dialogue and OTT-metaphors are all-too-low-rent drag queen, which one guesses is deliberate, given the two men’s diverging careers.
For Norrie appears to be spiralling downwards into envy and resentment, the occasional full-on savagery clearly fuelled by his own personal insecurities about his past and future career. Nicky, in contrast, seems to be getting ready to fly the nest, escaping from this world of garish frocks, neon-coloured make-up, puns and predictable punchlines. (“Drum-tish!”) Yet it’s here that McHugh, for the first time, pulls the rug from under our feet. This isn’t, it turns out, just about professional jealousy; it’s about family. Once that angle becomes clear, the whole situation is given significantly more emotional depth.
McHugh the performer is highly skilled at tongue-twisting panto craft; as a writer, he’s equally adept at exploiting those abilities for their full dramatic potential—the “shoe shine” sketch, which Norrie forces Nicky to perform, perfectly encapsulating a man suddenly terrified of losing everything he holds dear. It’s sharp writing that thankfully compensates for a couple of additional carpet-pulling revelations – not least about “Ashley” – which seem, at best, unnecessary and immodestly “right-on” distractions.