Panto News: Jan - Feb 2016

Reporter: Simon Sladen

Dateline: 6th March, 2016

Panto Season 2015

Panto season 2015 brought with it an explosion of new and revived titles as The Sword in the Stone, Red Riding Hood, Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Santa Claus is coming to Town and The Little Mermaid took to the stage to delight audiences. There is often talk about the industry's strength and indeed these titles demonstrate that producers are becoming ever more open to staging new or lesser-known pantomimes due to the genre's popularity.

2015 saw a number of record breaking seasons. Snow White at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury achieved 99.06% capacity over its run, with the New Wolsey, Ipswich's Sword in the Stone achieving 99%. In Salisbury, Cinderella at the Playhouse saw 95% of all tickets sold, of which 40% were to new audience members and the Birmingham Hippodrome's Aladdin was its most successful pantomime in over a decade. Pantomime not only helps support the theatre for the rest of the year, but entices new patrons in and can be a great way of building new audiences.

Over the past few years, the debate about female Principal Boys and their almost extinction has hotted up, fuelled in 2015 by discussions around 50/50 casting. The National Theatre has revealed that by 2021 it aims to have a 50/50 gender balance of living writers and directors. Can pantomime do the same and tally that with the Principal Boy? With the female Principal Boy being consigned to the past and the ever increasing popularity of the male, often camp, Immortal, some pantomimes are left with only one female performer in the principal cast.

Pantomime's stock roles haven't changed their names for over a century, with the Principal Boy, whether played by a male or female performer, often connoting youth. Pantomime narratives are frequently seen as depicting a rite of passage into adulthood, but this is an area of pantomime which is on the out.

Many Principal Boys in the 2015 season were muscular, toned and had something that hasn't been widely seen before upon the pantomime stage... a beard. Such physiques strip the role of any boyishness and it appears that the less innocent, alpha-male Principal Boy chimes well with the quest narrative now overriding the once popular class conflict narrative, which has seen a decline in recent years with the demise of Kings in Jack and the Beanstalk and Barons in Cinderella. This, combined with a sense of Immortals aiding the Principal Boy to achieve his destiny, rather than intervene, means we'll be seeing much more of this masculine Principal Boy in the future.

But it's not just the Principal Boys who sported beards; many ensemble members and even some Dames did too, which caused quite a stir and raises many a question about just how far performers can go when they negotiate the male/female binary. Does a beard make the Dame or Ugly Sister funnier? Does it make the role more offensive to women? Is it merely that performers don't want to shave and lose the look they've been cultivating over the year? Facial hair will be one of the defining features of 2015's season and it will be interesting to trace how widespread a practice it becomes.

But if testosterone is pumping in the Principal Boy, Principal Girls are becoming more feisty. No longer are they passive; they help defeat evil, stand up for their rights and often take charge. As one of our first experiences of theatre, it is important that pantomime provides positive role models and all eyes will be on the Hackney Empire in 2016 when Sleeping Beauty is due to get Susie McKenna's expert overhaul.

Pantomime is constantly evolving and another role that has seen expansion is that of the Dame as Fairy, particularly in Cinderella. Donovan Christian-Cary played the Fairy Superior in Aldershot, Simon Foster played Fairy Godmother in St Helens and Julian Hirst played Fairy Maude in Bracknell's Sleeping Beauty. These roles enable regular performers to continue their reign as Dame and of course combining roles is nothing new; the practice of the Comic Principal Boy, such as Jack or Aladdin, is now an accepted staple of the genre and helps keep cast sizes down.

But, whilst cast, ensemble and musician numbers decrease, productions of Dick Whittington are on the rise and the title seems to be having somewhat of a resurgence. Roy Hudd led an excellent production that felt right at home in Wilton's Music Hall, London, but further afield saw titles as diverse as Dick Whittington and his Meerkat in York and Dick Whittington and his Mousehole Cat in Truro. No longer does Dick always seek fame and fortune in London, but in a location close to or surrounding the theatre, such as in the Theatre Royal, Newcastle's production where the city became Dick's destination. In pantomime, localisation is key.

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