Panto News: February 2015

Reporter: Simon Sladen

Dateline: 22nd February, 2015

Panto Season 2014

As February draws to a close, it's time to reflect on Christmas past and look towards Panto Season 2015 in another year of British Theatre Guide Panto News Blogs. To celebrate, we're running a special competition to win copies of Jeffrey Richard's The Golden Age of Pantomime, so read closely, as the answer to the competition question is lurking somewhere inside...

Panto Season 2014 was important in a number of ways as First Family Entertainment and Evolution Productions celebrated their tenth season of producing. The founding of these two companies in 2005 suddenly gave the industry competition again and saw great investment in terms of sets, scripts and stars.

But, a decade on, is the industry as healthy as it was back in that exciting season where new companies presented their particular brand of pantomime for the first time? The answer, in terms of creativity, is probably not.

The National Database of Pantomime Performance revealed that pantomime's potential box office sales in 2014 were £146 million. Pantomime is big business and, as The Stage revealed, in 2013 accounted for 27% percentage of all theatre tickets sold in Northern Ireland. But big doesn't always mean good and the largest problem facing the industry today is that of staleness.

Pantomime can be dated by its cultural referencing, but some of the productions in 2014 seemed well past their sell-by date as they ignored the present and demonstrated how sometimes companies fail to refresh or invest in their productions each season.

Investment is key to the survival of the genre and is what made the 2005 season so exciting. Where is the creative investment today? For this, we must look to the smaller, newer companies such as Magic Beans Pantomimes and Little Wolf Ltd who are producing excellent and inventive pantomimes with high production values.

Credit too must go to the many theatres producing their pantomimes in-house. Greenwich Theatre consistently delivers an innovative, yet traditional show, whilst this year's stand-out production has to be the Lyric Hammersmith's Dick Whittington.

Pantomime was re-introduced at the Lyric in 2009 and since then the venue has been moulding the form to make it truly its own. After a flop of a Beanstalk last year, this year's Dick Whittington and his Cat was a triumphant success and I look forward to next year's production as the team has hit upon a winning formula, thanks to years of refining and listening to what their audience enjoys.

Audiences are, in many ways, the tax payers of Pantoland, financing the productions side by side with corporate sponsorship deals and a sprinkling of pennies from the Arts and Local Council. Although most audience members will only see one pantomime a year, more must be done to deliver world-class theatre regardless of venue.

Theatres such as the Nottingham Playhouse and Birmingham Hippodrome do this routinely; their pantomimes, along with the Hackney Empire's, some of the most important and respected in the land. The secret of their success? Maintaining and honouring traditional values whilst challenging expectations; in short, evolution.

So what is the answer? Is reduce, re-use, recycle hampering creativity? Yes. Should productions, like supermarket products, have a shelf life? Probably. Is such an approach sustainable for the larger companies? No. So what's the solution?

Rather than constantly tweaking, companies need to be bold and part with scripts, sets, costumes and stars after they reach their sell-by date. Assessing 'stock' every five years would help ensure freshness. For instance, just how many root scripts are still being used decades after they were originally written?

Venues such as York Theatre Royal never re-use a script or set, yet Berwick Kaler has been resident Dame, writer and director for 37 years, which in turn has led to a loyal audience, a strong brand and critical and box office success.

And what about sets and costumes, those big financial outlays? Are we relying too heavily on the lucrative hire business? Or creating sets made to last for longer than they need to? Would reducing the shelf life reduce the cost? Could this lead to more creative opportunities and ensure the industry is kept invigorated? 

Rather than reduce, re-use, recycle, perhaps Pantoland's new mantra should be rejuvenate, regenerate and retire. Companies such as Qdos Entertainment commission at least one large new million pound production every year under the creative leadership of Michael Harrison, but let's not forget those smaller venues who always have to settle for fourth- or fifth-hand.

So, a slightly different way to kick off this blog in 2015, but I hope it might provide some food for thought and I'd love to hear your views; send me an e-mail at simon@britishtheatreguide.info. Who knows, maybe these ideas, discussions and suggestions will continue throughout the year as we head towards Panto Season 2015 and track and trace the state of Pantoland today...

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