Sunday, 6 December 2020

The Past, Present & Future of Pantomime

Pantomime is often a child's first experience of live theatre and therefore it plays a critical role in establishing a young person’s love of live entertainment. It is also a unique shared experience as the whole family go together and the genre is built on audience interactions and traditional calls and shout outs. Sadly, this year there will not be the usual hundreds of venues staging a pantomime, and thousands of actors and technical staff will be unemployed. Only a few have survived the Pandemic and even then, in an abbreviated form, led by Qdos with Lottery funded shows in large venues to ensure they are Covid safe.

Qdos has established itself as the leading Pantomime production company usually has 35 productions each year including the two leading venues of the London Palladium and Birmingham Hippodrome but there are many other companies who usually produce 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 art of Pantomime

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 (sometimes 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. 

Disappointingly, some traditional elements of Pantomime are being lost. The principal 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’s” fox hunting scene is naturally stopped. In many ways, though this is just the evolution of the genre to reflect the current society and audiences. 

However, although star billings on the handbills 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 artists doing their “turn” which only loosely fitted into the story but more recently better scripts, more special effects (like the amazing upside scooter from Twin FX) and higher production values mean the genre has over the last 20 years found a fresh energy and attracted larger audiences with over three million tickets sold each year.

My top 10 Pantomime memories

Pantomime has been part of our family tradition for many years, seeing one or two each year but more recently this increased, as we had young children and I became a judge for GB Pantomime Awards. My top 10 memories of shows of the last 20 years are as follows:

New Victoria Theatre, Woking – Aladdin 2001

This pantomime has lived long in the memory for one simple reason, our young son Danny was invited to go on stage for the song sheet with John Inman, the Dame, and was asked how old he was to which he replied “I’m Three” which brought the house down when Inman said that it was his catchphrase. In the cast that year was Gary Wilmot who has become one of the great panto Dame’s himself since and can be seen at the London Palladium this year. Thankfully, Inman did not pick Danny up as Matt Slack did to Nicholas in the 2017 Birmingham Pantomime and drop him into the pit to the shock and delight of the audience!

The New Victoria Theatre in Woking have Robin Hood, Starring Criag Revel Horwood, Matt Slack & Richard Cadell & Sotty. 

Theatre Royal Bath – Beauty and the Beast 2018/19

Certain venues seem perfect for Pantomime and we make an annual pilgrimage to one of those, the wonderful Theatre Royal in Bath (originally built in 1805, designed by George Dance). It is a perfect intimate setting for the Christmas treat and has developed the tradition of many regional shows of retaining its core casting to attract return visits each year. Chris Harris was the regular Dame there until his untimely death and he has been replaced by Nick Wilton as Dame since 2015. We have also seen the progression of Jon Monie from the “bottom of the bill” local radio presenter in 2006 to the top of the bill comic and scriptwriter. He won best script in 2018 for GB Pantomime Awards for his Blackpool Grand (Frank Matcham designed in 1894) pantomime of Beauty and Beast which was staged at Bath in 2019 with Wendi Peters headlining.

This year, Theatre Royal Bath are not presenting a Pantomime. Instead, they have Mischief Theatre causing havoc with their production of The Play That Goes Wrong

Theatre Royal York- Jack in the Beanstalk 2017

Another venue that benefited from regular repeat casting was the Theatre Royal in York (opened in 1744) where Berwick Kaler ruled the roost for 40 years starring as Dame, writing, and directing the shows with a regular cast. It had a unique Yorkshire feel and many of the local annual jokes and routines were as familiar to the regular audience members as they were to the cast. We saw the 2017 version Jack and the Beanstalkthere and admired the well-choreographed mayhem and madness with one of the best “slosh scenes” you will ever see. He was presented in 2018 with the Lifetime Award by the late Sir Roy Hudd (a previous winner).

Whist the theatre remains closed, Theatre Royal York are presenting a socially-distanced "Traveling Pantomime", the 70-minute extravaganza will be available to seen by the people of York and online for those who aren't. They are also producing Jack and the Beanstalk with Theatre@41 Monkgate. 

Salisbury Playhouse – Jack in the Beanstalk 2017

A venue that proves it is not all about star names is Salisbury (built-in 1976). Their version of Jack and the Beanstalk in 2017 won Best Pantomime (under 750 seats) at the GB Pantomime awards with Andrew Pollard's excellent script and Richard McBryde's sharp creative direction. You got a sense that you are going to see a production created with loving care as soon as you entered the auditorium and saw the beautiful sunflower covered proscenium arch and large giant’s eye looking out with clever lighting highlights behind the clouds all built in their own workshops.

This year they are presenting 'Little Robin Redbreast', a family musical full of magic, laughter, song, dance and surprise for children and their grownups.

Mayflower, Southampton- Snow White and Seven dwarfs 2017

This is a magnificent large venue built in 1928 and has a long tradition of staging Pantomime but my standout memory is the 2017 production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with the Chuckle Brothers as the henchmen. Barry and Paul had turned seventy having had 50 years of pantomime together and their effortless brilliant comic timing and delivery was hilarious. The show provided a platform for them to perform some of their best routines including the song "We have got some presents", the Smelly socks game, the Strongman sketch, the Magic sword trick, and the Goldilocks and the three bears routine all of which they delivered with such ease and experience that even a sideways glance at the audience from Barry can produce howls of laughter from the two thousand plus audience. Sadly, it was Barry’s last pantomime as he died early the following year.

This year the Mayflower is staging Sleeping Beauty with Joe Pasquale and Leslie Joseph.

Palladium, London – Dick Whittington 2017

In recent years QDOS have set the benchmark in Pantomime production values and casting and their 2017 production of Dick Whittington at the Palladium (Frank Matcham designed in 1910) went on to win a BAFTA and best pantomime award at GB Pantomime Awards. The strong cast included Elaine Paige, Gary Wilmot, Diversity, Paul Zerdin, Nigel Havers, Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady all competing for stage time and laughs. However, it is best remembered for the extraordinary Twin FX special effect of a London Double Decker bus flying over the heads of the stall’s audience!

This year it is presenting Pantoland at the Palladium a variety show with many returning stars from previous years.

Birmingham Hippodrome – Peter Pan 2018

The Hippodrome (opened in 1924, designed by Burdwood and Mitchell) is another huge venue with a recent run of excellent pantomimes. The 2018 show Peter Pan was an excellent show including more special FX from The Twins including a giant crocodile, an upside scooter over the audience and huge rocking galleon. However, it was also tragically remembered for having three Captain Hook’s as the wonderful Jimmy Osmond was struck down with a stroke early in the run, was covered by an understudy Luke Redford for a short period, before Darren Day stepped into the complete the run direct from playing the same role in another nearby show! Each was a different style of performance but Matt Slack, the long-time resident comic, coped magnificently with each change and showed real affection and chemistry with each actor and the audience.

This year Matt Slack is in Robin Hood at the New Victoria Theatre in Woking

Manchester Opera House- Cinderella 2018

Also, in 2018 was an outstanding production of Cinderella at one of Manchester two ATG venues, The Opera house (which opened in 1912). Sometimes soap opera transferees to pantomime bring in the audiences but cannot deliver on stage. In this show, Les Dennis and Connor McIntyre played the Ugly Sisters creating a great double act and hilarious interaction with the comic Ben Nickless as Buttons. They judged the performances perfectly and deserved the best Uglies award in GB Pantomime Awards.

Dennis and McIntyre are at the Theatre Royal Plymouth this year in Robinson Crusoe while Manchester currently scheduled Jason Manford in Sleeping Beauty.

King’s Theatre, Glasgow- Jack and the Beanstalk 2019

Another fine venue (Frank Matcham designed in 1904) where regular casting has created an annual successful pantomime. Elaine C Smith and Johnny Mac were Dame and Comic in the 2019 production of Jack and the Beanstalk. Elaine C Smith is the Queen of Pantomime with twenty years’ experience and has recently formed a brilliant partnership with Johnny Mac who has fifteen years to his credit. Her first entrance was fittingly over the top in a giant globe and an IronBru dress singing "I’m still working till I'm 69" (to the Elton John tune). Mac’s comedy partnership with Smith was frequently centre stage as in the Trunk of Truth, a good Mastermind routine, an excellent chocolate basket sketch and with four dummies in a dance routine. It was the best you can imagine and even when they borrow gags from other shows, they simply make them better. 

Though the QDOS Scottish Pantomimes are cancelled this year, another Scottish legend Allan Stewart is appearing in Sleeping Beauty in Milton Keynes.

Richmond, Surrey- Peter Pan 2018

Frank Matcham designed venues (Richmond opened in 1899) feel ideal settings for pantomime. This production of Peter Pan saw Robert Lindsay make his pantomime debut as Captain Hook. He was magnificent creating a likeable villain and showing off all his musical theatre experience in a performance that won Best Villain and with good interaction with Smee played by Jon Clegg.

Richmond Theatre are not producing a Pantomime this year. 

The Future 

Of course, there are so many great shows and brilliant performers who we have seen over the years including Christopher Biggins, John Nettles, Paul Nicholas, Russ Abbott, Danny La Rue, Brian Conley, Bradley Walsh, Lesley Joseph, Su Pollard, Dawn French, Bobby Davro, Joe Pasquale, Barbara Windsor, Dame Edna Everage, Britt Eklund, Simon Callow, Bonnie Langford, Warwick Davis, Anita Harris, Jim Davison, and Tim Vine, each capable of carrying the show on their own but what makes my chosen ten stand out was the ensemble cast around the stars & the production values invested to create brilliant family entertainment.

This year there is less choice, and it will feel very different and we will be left wondering what so many cast and crew will be doing this Christmas. No doubt sitting at home in groups of no more than six singing “If I were not upon the stage, something else I would like to be” or perhaps wondering how to fill “The twelve days of Christmas”. Hopefully in 2021 they will all be back on stage singing those very songs in show-stopping riotous Pantomime but in the meantime it is worth checking out your local theatre to see what they are doing with Qdos shows at Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, London, Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Stoke, Nottingham, Manchester, Woking and Newcastle, Evolution productions at Canterbury and Sheffield and several other intriguing offerings.

*All information is subject to change due to the nature of the current circumstances. Although we have checked the information is correct at the time of publishing, this may have changed. 

Written by Nick Humby
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