Pantomime: The Perfect Tonic for 2016? Oh Yes!

Berwick Kaler in Cinderella. Photo: Anthony Robling.

Love it or loathe it, it’s undeniable that one of the UK’s greatest theatrical traditions is the pantomime. The genre may feel totally foreign and bizarre to American audiences and, despite our closeness in theatrical tastes throughout both musical theatre and drama, it’s a form that has never caught on across the Atlantic. The history of pantomime dates back to classical times but it also has roots in commedia dell’arte as well as still later traditions, such as masques and British music hall. As developed across the ages, the form has refined itself into a highly recognisable format that few in Britain are unfamiliar with, and, as an access point to live theatre, it remains one of the most significant introductory and inspirational forms of performance.

For performers, a “panto” contract means greater financial security.

Each year, I’m struck by the sheer number of pantomimes (or “pantos”) that populate the UK theatre scene and regional theatres up and down the land, boasting record audiences Christmas season after Christmas season. Especially in a year in which the UK and, indeed, the world has been through the mill in terms of political and social upheaval, critics and audiences have found much to love in the escapism and satire that the best examples of the form command. Scripts may seem formulaic and recognisable, each hung around well-trodden fairy tales, but it’s the reliance on topical events, popular culture and local traditions that make the good versions stand out from the bad. With 2016 offering so much to satirize, “panto” is the perfect tonic for a year of crazy.

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Content aside, the commercial benefits are “panto” are also clear: For many smaller theatres and, in fact, some larger ones, pantos make up for financial losses during the leaner months and helps to subsidize other work throughout the rest of the year. For actors, a panto contract brings with it a greater level of financial security compared to other months of the year, Very simply, there’s a lot of money to be made, especially for experienced panto performers appearing at larger venues. As an industry, it is still continuing to grow — leading many to comment that Britain is currently experiencing a “panto renaissance.”

What used to be kitsch and corny now seems fashionable in a sort of “throwback” way that has become almost hipster — like the reclamation of vinyl records and the post-ironic rejection of smartphones. As times have changed, the more successful theatres have branched out to develop the form still further, keeping the most successful elements and adding updated tropes that reflect non-traditional casting, for example, as well as popular music and dance forms. Productions at the Hackney Empire, the Lyric Hammersmith and Theatre Royal Stratford East are such examples of producing houses that create their own formats to reflect their diverse local areas.

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In London’s West End, the London Palladium has this year staged its first panto in almost 30 years with a new production of Cinderella running over the festive season. With a star-studded cast of regulars, including Julian Clary, Paul O’Grady and Nigel Havers, the production reportedly boasts a £1M budget and delighted most of the critics on its official opening. Despite some criticism over the level of smut and sexual innuendo — key tropes of the genre — the effort has been praised, and has reportedly led to two more productions to be scheduled there over the next two years. Sir Ian McKellen raised eyebrows back late 2004 when he took to the stage as Widow Twankey in an Aladdin at the Old Vic, which rooted the genre in the south London venue’s highbrow catalogue, proving its place on the legitimate stage. So whilst we may never quite see the National Theatre stage their own fully fledged version, they are no stranger to creating original Christmas shows and are staging a new production of Peter Pan featuring gender-blind casting and a familial comedic vibe.

Quality is obviously variable.

Growing up, my local pantos were littered with strange 1990s celebrities, mainly pulled from the TV show Gladiators. Each venue in my local area seemed to rotate a different gladiator as a star attraction, sitting alongside more regular performers such as The Grumbleweeds, The Chuckle Brothers and The Krankies. Stock characters in their own right, each are masters of their genre, taking it in turns each Christmas to travel up and down the country rehashing their particular brand of humour to please the crowds.

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Quality in panto is obviously variable, and there are a number of professional companies which rotate their productions around UK venues, bouncing from one year to the next, recycling costumes, props, acts, and, in many cases, jokes. Many of the best original pantos come from producing houses which, like the three London venues above, tend to create their own original annual offering. York Theatre Royal can often boast of housing the UK’s top panto, thanks in part to the talents of writer, performer and director Berwick Kahler, currently in his 38th season, making him the country’s longest serving Dame — who shows no signs of slowing down. Rejecting the ease of casting a half-familiar celebrity to draw in the punters, Kahler promoted the genre’s traditional form and made that itself the star, forging through a new age of theatrical gold.

After a somewhat intense year of theatre that has seen me personally hit a new target of over 160 productions, it seems fitting that my final show of 2016 is Kahler’s Cinderella. It’s my annual visit. As a genre that began my love of theatre from the youngest age and one that I genuinely admire, this is always a highlight of my theatrical calendar. This year, however, I feel the need for escapism is even greater than before — and I am thus convinced it will provide the appropriate release. If we can’t at least laugh at the shit-show that has been the past 12 months, what else can we do?