Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Pantomime Season 2017/18

As December approaches all over the country theatres are preparing for one of their busiest times of the year as the annual pantomime brings in new and old audiences to the traditional Christmas show. Pantomime is often a child's first experience of live theatre and therefore it hopefully plays a critical role in establishing a young person’s love of live entertainment. It is also a unique shared experience, not just as the family go together but the genre is built on audience interactions and traditional calls and shout outs.

This year there will be hundreds of venues staging a pantomime, thousands of actors and technical staff employed and several million attending as part of the audiences. Qdos has established itself as the leading Pantomime production company with 35 productions this year including the two leading venues of the London Palladium and Birmingham Hippodrome but there are many other companies with multiple productions (UK productions, Imagine, PHA, Jordan and Evolution) and lots of “in house” productions. All of them are built on the same traditional elements that have made the genre so established over the last two hundred years.

The genre has evolved from the 16th century commedia dell'arte tradition of Italy, with its stock characters, into the Harlequinade with its story of eloping lovers pursued by the father, servants and policemen. This was combined with the traditions of British musical hall, variety, spectacular staging and special effects. In the 1800's Joseph Grimaldi, established himself as the leading comic at Theatre Royal Drury Lane and Sadler Wells pantomimes with his white face and became known as Joey in titles still familiar today like “Cinderella”, “Mother Goose”, and “Robinson Crusoe”. Over time other children's fairy stories were adapted into the Pantomime format.

One word that links the original form with the modern day is slapstick. Originally
it was two thin pieces of wood which made “slap” sound when the clown struck another performer, but now it describes the farcical physical comedy that the same comedy stock character engages in during Pantomime. These scenes also have their roots in British variety acts and silent movies. They continue today in the kitchen baking scenes (sometime known as the “slosh” scene), laundrette routine (where someone is put through the mangle), decorating scene (where more paint and paper is spilt than hung), bedroom routines (often a dame comedy strip), mirror scenes (where a character pretends to be in the mirror), bench scenes (where a ghost or gorilla scares the cast), army drill routines (using brooms or mops) and chases. Most of this season’s pantomimes will include one or two of these, as even a lazy execution will still amuse the audience.

Sadly some traditional elements of Pantomime are being lost. The principle boy, played by a female in fishnet tights and boots is a rare sight these days, the throwing of sweets into the audience is banned for health and safety reasons and “Cinderella” Ugly Sisters fox hunting scene is naturally stopped. In many ways, though this is just the natural evolution of the genre to reflect the current society and audiences. 

The central element that makes a successful pantomime is the dame, usually a man in drag who is the mother to the main comedian character. Leading dame Christopher Biggins, who has appeared virtually every year in pantomime since 1965, will this year be Widow Twankey in “Aladdin” at Richmond Theatre. Andrew Ryan, in his 31st pantomime season, will be the dame in Nottingham production of “Beauty and the Beast”. Berwick Kaler is the longest serving dame at Theatre Royal York, where he is now in his 40th season. At Theatre Royal
Bath , Nick Wilton is the dame in “Aladdin”, his 17th season in pantomime, while Paul Morse returns to the Hexagon for a 5th successive year in Reading in “Peter Pan” (his 14th season as Dame).These larger than life characters think the world revolves around them and in pantomime it largely does!

Opposite the dame is the main comedian. Their relationship and their interaction with the audience, young and old, are critical to a successful show. This year sees Al Murray making his pantomime debut in the New Theatre Wimbledon production of “Jack and the Beanstalk”. Elsewhere Matt Slack returns to the Birmingham Hippodrome in “Cinderella”, Joe Pasquale is in “Aladdin” at Bristol Hippodrome, Brian Conley is in the Milton Keynes Theatre production of “Cinderella” (his 26th year in Pantomime) and Bradley Walsh is in “Peter Pan” at the Barclaycard Arena in Birmingham (his 17th year) and later at Wembley. They are all brilliant comedians and excellent pantomime performers and will soon get the audience on side with “Will you all be my friends? I can’t hear you!”

At the heart of all stories is the battle between good and evil in which the
innocent principle girl and boy, the dame and comedian get caught up. Good is represented by the Fairy character usually with a sprinkling of glitter and magic. This year will see Debbie McGee, fresh (or exhausted) from BBC Strictly Come Dancing as the Good Fairy in York Opera House “Beauty and the Beast”. Rachel Stevens will be the fairy in Bournemouth Pavilion pantomime of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and Melinda Messenger is Fairy Sparkle in “Snow White” in Kings Theatre Southsea. 

The character to hiss and boo is often played by a TV soap star actors like Steve McFadden as Hook in “Peter Pan” in Plymouth, Adam Woodyatt as Hook in Swindon, Shaun Williamson in same role at Marlowe Canterbury, Todd Carty as King Rat in “Dick Whittington” at Eastbourne and John Altman as Abanazar in “Aladdin” in Playhouse Weston Super Mare. Pantomime is one of the few forms of theatre where it is ok to behave like a football crowd and jeer the baddie.

However although star billings on the hand bills and posters help sell tickets, it is the way the elements come together with topical and local references, silly jokes and adult innuendo, traditional pantomime business (like the song sheet, the bench sketch, 12 days of Christmas routines), instantly recognisable popular music, magical effects and lighting and a strong ensemble feeling from all the performers with lively audience interaction that make pantomime the entertainment success that it is. For a time pantomime became lazy with a succession of artistes doing their “turn” which only loosely fitted into the story but more recently better scripts, more special effects and higher production values mean the genre has over the last 15 years found a fresh energy and attracted larger audiences. 

Pocket Sized Theatre will bring you reviews from many of the leading pantomimes this year over December and January but urges you to find your local production and support it to keep the genre alive and ensure future generations can enjoy their first theatre experience.

Written by Nick Wayne 
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