Panto News: November 2017

Simon Sladen

With Oldham Coliseum's Dick Whittington set to open this weekend, it's time to look ahead to Panto Season 2017 and the future...

Pantomime comes in all shapes and sizes, portrays people in all shapes and sizes and ventures to lands of all shapes and sizes. But does it? Victorian pantomimes generally boasted principal casts of four men (Villain, Dame, Comic, Second Comic) and three women (Principal Girl, Principal Boy, Immortal), but, over a hundred years on, the make-up of characters is changing.

The female Principal Boy accounts for roughly ten percent of productions each year, with male Principal Boys the mainstream and here to stay. They often take on a heroic stance, with quest narratives focusing little on romance. Our heroes today might possess bulging muscles and well groomed beards, aspects of character construction once never thought of on account of the Principal Boy being just that—a boy.

Quest has replaced coming of age, fitness has replaced fairy magic with modern society reminding us to stop moaning, get out there and do it. In an age of Brexit and cuts, no government or heavenly body can be relied upon to help, which may also be why the male Principal Boy's costume complete with tights, plunging neckline and frequently cape echoes the superhero. It is he the villagers pin their hopes on...

But if the boys have bumped off the girls in terms of Aladdins and Jacks, where are all the female roles? Looking at the poster for the Palladium's Dick Whittington, one might be forgiven for recounting a particular lyric complete with expletive acknowledging the unknown identity of a certain Alice. Whilst almost the entirety of the cast is depicted, the Principal Girl doesn't get a look in.

Edged out in narratives and now on posters, what does this say to audiences? In an age where the industry is pressing for 50:50 representation, producers, writers and marketing managers need to respond to contemporary matters to keep the genre alive. After all, pantomime's very survival is down to its ability and willingness to change.

One of the greatest changes in stock character development can be seen in the male Immortal. Julian Clary has played many a Spirit of the Bells, Beans and Ring, as has Louie Spence with Joe McElderry, Gok Wan and Paul O'Grady offering advice as Fairy Gok-mothers and Godfathers and Men in the Mirror. Celebrating openly gay performers and integrating them and such roles into pantomime narratives is a step forward and representative of our multicultural society.

In productions such as Cinderella, however, this leaves the leading lady as the only one in the cast, with Snow White amassing slightly more in the form of Princess and Wicked Queen; two extremes.

Of course, pantomime as a genre intrinsically plays on character and the stock nature of roles. But it's time to start thinking outside the box. As some of the country's boutique, alternative and queer pantomimes have shown, characters do not have to retain a particular gender in order for the show to still be recognised as a panto.

The Drag Villain, typified by Craig Revel Horwood's Wicked Queen, and Dame Fairy Godmother, most recently played by Simon Bashford in Redhill, have both been embraced thanks to the celebrity power of Danny La Rue and Paul O'Grady coining the roles and regional resident casting, but where is the cross-over of male to female roles? Wee Jimmy Krankie is one of a few examples of such Comics, further complicated by being billed as Jimmy and not Jeanette, but was Jane Deane's Jenny the Jester in Horsham's 2012 production really the Industry's first female Comic to be seconded only by this year's Oxford Playhouse's Smart Simone?

Productions such as those at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Hackney Empire and Lyric Hammersmith continually celebrate diversity and reflect their audiences. In the past, pantomimes at these venues have featured male and female comics who fall in love with each other, the addition of sisters to Principal Boys in the case of Sinbadda at Stratford East last year, and even teenage Dames a la Darren Hart's Amnesiah in Hackney Empire's 2013 production of Puss in Boots. But these venues are few and far between and the exceptions to the rule.

Other characters too can embrace change, not just the Principal Boy and Girl. Basildon's Aladdin boasts an Aunty Banazar this season to be played by Towngate regular Sophie Ladds, with more and more productions turning Daisy the Cow and Priscilla the Goose into speaking parts ready to comment and contribute to the plot in new ways. The skilled skin performer is extinct, but let's not forget that so too is the Baron and King in many a production. Out with the old... but where is the new?

Playfulness and inventiveness must be embraced if the genre is to survive. The Palladium's Cinderella cast female Ugly Sisters to counteract Paul O'Grady's Drag Villain Stepmother with Oxford's Smart Simone being matched by Amrou Al'Kahdi's Judy Henchman. Jack is joined by aunties played by Louise McCarthy and Gayle Telfer Stevens (The Dolls) at the Glasgow SECC this year, with interchangeable Kings and Queens now commonplace in beanstalk tales staged by both Qdos and Imagine Theatre.

So here's to 2017 and to the future. Let's mix things up a little, or perhaps even a lot. Mrs Smee is now firmly wedged in Peter Pan; it's time for panto's next awfully big adventure...