Panto News: February 2014

Reporter: Simon Sladen

Dateline: 1st March, 2014

Panto Season 2013

It is somewhat remarkable that panto season 2013, which opened with Oldham Coliseum’s Jack and the Beanstalk on 16 November is still running, and is set to close on 8 March 2014 when Brick Lane Music Hall's Big Dick Whittington takes its final bow. Since the majority of productions ended their runs in January, theatres across the country have been declaring their best season ever, with capacity at Ipswich's New Wolsey reaching 98% and Swindon's Jack and the Beanstalk becoming the highest grossing panto in the theatre's 42 year history.

Box office records were also broken at Devonshire Park, Eastbourne and the Sands Centre, Carlisle, whilst the UK's two largest companies, First Family Entertainment and Qdos Entertainment took over £11 million and £25 million in ticket sales respectively. At the Birmingham Hippodrome, Qdos's production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was seen by over 115,000 theatregoers, whilst at the Liverpool Empire and Bristol Hippodrome, First Family Entertainment's Peter Pan and Cinderella saw ticket sales increase by 33% and 40%, with sales across all their venues up an average of 11% on 2012.

Pantomime is big business and with one in three ticket purchasers at the Birmingham Hippodrome making their first visit to the theatre for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs starring Gok Wan, it is easy to see the important role pantomime plays in our theatrical landscape. Panto Season 2013 saw 260 professional productions performed in the UK and whilst I managed to see around 15% of these, it is clear that the overall standard of performance has increased across all production companies and theatres when compared to previous years.

Panto Season 2013 was full of wonderful moments. From Gary Wilmot's debut as Dame at the Birmingham Hippodrome, to the rare treat of two Puss in Boots in London courtesy of Greenwich Theatre and Hackney Empire. Although many people bemoan the loss of these titles, I'm not convinced that they, or other titles such as Mother Goose, were ever as popular as Cinderella or Aladdin. Pantomime thrives on its diversity of practices and although some lesser produced titles may gain prominence due to their star (John Inman and Danny La Rue in Mother Goose, for example), historically, their number of productions during any one season seems to have been confused with the attention they received in the media.

2013 saw one of our most prominent and experienced pantomime practitioners, Kenneth Alan Taylor, retire from Daming in his thirtieth pantomime for the Nottingham Playhouse. Taylor will still continue to write the annual pantomime, but Dame Daisy was his last cross-dressed role and has now been consigned to the history books.

The role of Dame requires both a well-tuned set of skills and a character unique to the performer. Some Dames are mumsie, others are bolshie. Some are blokes in frocks, some are stunning in sequins. Some are even played by a woman! But regardless of approach, the best Dames refine and define their character over seasons of practice and it is this wealth of experience and comic patter that entertains audiences across the country throughout the festive period.

One of this season’s many highlights was Matthew Kelly’s return to the Damehood in his glorious Widow Twankey at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Over twenty years ago, Kelly played Mother Goose up and down the country, the pinnacle of any Dame's career, and having played the King in Windsor’s 2012 panto and an Ugly Sister in the Mayflower’s 2008 pantomime, let’s hope his damsel in a dress gets another airing in panto season 2014.

Panto season 2013 saw a plethora of stand-out performances, and you can read all of the British Theatre Guide's reviews by clicking on our Panto Hub. From Sophie Ladds's spine-chilling Ragwort in Basildon, to Oliver Watton's perfect 21st Century Prince in Wolverhampton, not forgetting Alim Jayda's energetic Puss in Greenwich and Stephen Matthews's motherly, yet mischievous Dame Nettie Knowall in Hackney, the pantomime industry really does showcase some of our finest acting talent.

So with panto season 2013 over, what can we look forward to in 2014? First there are the Easter and Summer seasons, both booming industries that will be the focus of next month‘s blog, but let‘s now consider the main season ahead, that of Christmas 2014.

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