Panto News: February 2017

Reporter: Simon Sladen

Dateline: 26th February, 2017

Panto Season 2016

2016 was a bumper year for pantomime, with attendances on the up and many productions breaking box office records. At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Sinbad welcomed 10,000 new visitors to the theatre, whilst the Theatre Royal Winchester, Stafford Gatehouse Theatre and Theatre Severn, Shrewsbury all boasted record ticket sales.

Of course all eyes were on the return of pantomime to the London Palladium, where Cinderella broke the record for achieving the highest weekly grossing sales figure in West End history. In a no-expense spared production featuring Paul O'Grady and Julian Clary amongst a whole host of names and talent, pantomime held its own in amongst the sea of musicals and plays that form the West End today.

Pantomime hadn't been seen at the Palladium since the 1987 season and, having achieved success in 2016, it will be back in 2017 with Dick Whittington; a title suited to London. Its return, of course, was not heralded without criticism—female ugly sisters rocked the house of traditionalists and critics lamented the loss of 'family pantomime' with Julian Clary delivering his usual innuendo paired with a deliciously venomous Wicked Stepmother in the form of O'Grady.

With the spotlight on the Palladium, it revealed that many critics do not attend pantomime, so would be unaware of the fact that Clary's material differed little from pantomime performances in Wolverhampton, Plymouth and Birmingham. Pantomime knows its audience, that's one of the reasons behind its very survival and with tickets costing up to £99.50, theatre historians of the future have a pretty good idea as to who could afford to attend.

Whilst the Palladium's Cinderella did not feature male Ugly Sisters or a Dame, it did embrace a relatively new character in the evolution of the form: the drag Villain. O'Grady has exemplified this previously as the Wicked Queen in many a Snow White, a role inherited by Craig Revel Horwood and one in which drag performers fit perfectly in the show's narrative.

Since the 1980s, traditionalists have bemoaned the increase of drag artists in pantomime with Ugly Sisters often the area they are cast in due to their ability to be acerbic, vile and grotesque. But this new form sees the drag Villain break out into Wicked Fairies and Wicked Queens, with plenty of material for scriptwriters to play with in terms of semantics, double entendre and innuendo.

Now that the role of drag Villain is becoming ever more widely practiced, regular Villains around the country are cross-dressing for the first time. Grant Stott and Steve Arnott at Edinburgh and Newcastle both took on the role of Wicked Queen when their regular venue produced Snow White and due to the tripartite of Dame>Villain>Comic at the King's and Dame>Comic>Second Comic at the Theatre Royal, both shows retained their regular Dame in the form of Allan Stewart and Chris Hayward and in doing so increased their cross-dressed quota.

Last year I reported on an increase in Dames as Fairies, and indeed Cinderellas across the country are welcoming their regular Dame to this role. As the Immortal, they can work with Buttons to ensure the Comic>Dame partnership is upheld, leaving the Ugly Sisters to play Villain. Of course, this does mean that in titles such as Cinderella, and with female Principal Boys accounting for roughly 10% of productions, many pantomimes of the future may have one female in the cast as Principal Girl.

And so to the Principal Girl, a role getting feistier by the year and rectifying years of passivity. Stratford East's Sinbad put Sinbadda at the centre of its tale and in Hackney, Sleeping Beauty's Princess Thalia was awoken by her Nanny's kiss, full of love, to go on to rescue her Prince.

Susie McKenna always ensures the genre remains fresh and contains strong role models—Thalia was no exception. What will be of interest to traditionalists, however, is that although Thalia was the centre of the quest narrative, her Principal Girl transformed from dress into robes and armour in a nod to the cross-dressed Principal Boy of yesteryear.

The Tomboy Princess could also be seen at the Lyric Hammersmith, where Princess Jasmine wore jeans and a t-shirt in tune with today's contemporary fashion and in Greenwich, Wendy too wore trousers, led the narrative and echoed the Principal Boys of past when undercover as a Pirate aboard the Jolly Roger.

2016 saw stages awash with Peter Pan as a title and Greenwich's decision to mount the tale marks a turning point in in-house venues embracing it as part of the genre. Commercial theatre has done so since the 1990s, but it's only recently that productions have included a Dame with Qdos Entertainment, Imagine Theatre, Evolution Pantomimes and Jordan Productions's Pans frequently featuring one.

Now a staple, thanks partly due to Disney and a love of all things swashbuckling on account of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, seafaring narratives have enjoyed a resurgence and this year four productions of Sinbad sailed on to stages in Ipswich, Stratford, Blackburn and Arbroath.

A title not seen since for many a season, Sinbad provides writers with the opportunity to explore new territory and expand their portfolio of productions in a season that saw change in Pantoland's Top 5.

Whilst Cinderella, Aladdin and Jack and the Beanstalk remained in first, second and third position, Dick Whittington pipped Snow White to the post as the fourth most produced pantomime. However, what is incredibly interesting, is that only five productions separated fourth to seven place in what was the industry's most evenly distributed season since the National Database of Pantomime Performance began.

Sleeping Beauty took sixth place, followed by Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan, with Beauty and the Beast seeing an increase of over 100% since 2016, perhaps due to the soon-to-be-released Disney live action remake.

Of course the big news of the season wasn't what was happening on stage, but rather off, with the announcement that 2016 would be First Family Entertainment's last season of pantomime.

Having produced pantomimes since the 2005 season, 2016 saw First Family Entertainment stage their final shows in a move that will see Qdos take on the majority of their venues. Since Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire stepped down from their roles at Ambassador Theatre Group in May, the company has experienced great change and it seems the culling of First Family Entertainment was the latest in a long line as part of the company's shake-up.

The impact of this is immense. 2017 will see Qdos produce 36 pantomimes, increasing their industry lead, accounting for almost all number one venues and eliminating the notion of competition.

Whilst First Family Entertainment's productions at certain venues had decreased in quality over the past three years, in particular at Wimbledon, venues such as the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent had established itself as one of the best pantomimes of each season.

Qdos Entertainment and First Family Entertainment had very different focuses and it will be interesting to see how Qdos negotiates its new audiences and venues, not to mention the regular stars at First Family Entertainment venues. The company would be foolish not to cast the likes of Jonny Wilkes at Stoke, but it does have a challenge on its hands—where to cast its top talent and how to ensure good business when competition has been wiped.

Take London, for example. Qdos will now be producing the pantomimes at the London Palladium, New Wimbledon Theatre and Richmond Theatre, as well as at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley and Orchard Theatre, Dartford. First Family Entertainment missed an opportunity in 2016 to rival the Palladium's casting, but with Wimbledon a significant and sizeable venue, and the Palladium a stone's throw away, the two productions will need to have very different identities to succeed.

What will the future bring as Qdos returns to a time of Paul Elliott's Pantoland days producing at most of the UK's number one venues? Will we see less diversity, less investment? Or will other companies up their game now that Qdos will be in a town nearby? Only time will tell...

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