Panto Season 2012

Earlier this month the 2012 pantomime season came to a close, having been running in the UK since 19th November and internationally since the 2nd November. This year I reviewed 21 pantomimes for the British Theatre Guide, traveling around the country throughout November, December and January whilst also managing to fit in three podcasts and five interviews. Next season will mark my fifth for the British Theatre Guide and I’m looking forward to seeing which show of the season will be my 100th pantomime review.

Panto Season 2012 was one of the strongest seasons to date. The huge success of Panto Day on Wednesday 5th December suggested the season would be a good one, with record booking figures announced of up to 20% up on the previous season. Whilst skeptics may say this is merely an indication of people booking tickets earlier, final figures of 99% capacity from the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich and 93% at the Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh show that pantomimes are, literally, selling out. Early booking is therefore required to secure the seats at one’s performance of choice.

During the season, pantomime appeared to be more in vogue than ever before. Panto Day gained wide press attention and was even mentioned on Newsnight, whilst television schedules saw comedy Panto! on ITV, The History of the Pantomime Dame documentary on BBC Four and Pavilion of Dreams about the Glasgow Pavilion’s panto The Wizard of Never Woz on BBC Scotland. In America, Opening Night detailed the Lythgoes’ quest to bring Snow White to the Pasadena Playhouse, California and Chris Abbott’s book Putting on Panto to pay for the Pinter about the Salisbury Playhouse pantomimes was published.

2012 was also the first season that many production companies and theatre adopted relaxed performances for those on the autistic spectrum or who would benefit from a more relaxed performance without the pyrotechnics, loud noises and bright lights. But this addition to performance schedules was not the only way producers and theatres are making pantomimes more accessible. Productions at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, Theatre Royal, Newcastle, South Hill Park, Bracknell and the Broadway, Barking live-streamed their pantomimes to hospitals and children’s hospices around the country, bringing panto joy to those unable to attend in person.

Having reviewed 21 productions and seen almost 30 in total, what are some of my most memorable moments from the season? The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds certainly proved Rapunzel does work as a pantomime narrative, whilst I was pleasantly surprise that Andrew Pollard’s Mother Goose for Watford Palace was completely different from his Mother Goose at Greenwich in 2009. One often expects pantomime scripts by the same author to be similar, with some localisation and contemporary references thrown in, but Pollard had written a new version of the title, rather than tweaking it. It will be interesting to see what happens when his Robin Hoodtransfers’ to Watford from Greenwich for panto season 2013.

2012 saw Robin Hood’s popularity increase immensely. Nottingham Playhouse’s version of the tale was a sumptuous production and it was a real treat to see Kenneth Alan Taylor back on stage as Nurse Nelly Noggins. Alan Taylor’s fellow long-standing Dame, Berwick Kaler at York Theatre Royal, also staged Robin Hood this year and his Merry Mam was a comic delight with the show’s costumes and sets my favourites of the season. The York Theatre Royal does not go all out on the glitter stakes, but Phil R Daniels and Charles Cusick Smith’s design truly captures the essence of pantomime; a warm, but crazy fairytale realm where anything can and does happen.

For the Customs House, South Shields, 2012 marked the end of an era as Dame Dotty aka Bob Stott took her final panto bow, but where one Dame hangs up their frocks, others don them for the first time. Ben Roddy’s Dame at Canterbury was a wondrous sight to behold, marking the start of a new chapter in his already long pantomime career. Another first-time Dame of the season was Steve Elias at Hackney Empire, whose Welsh beauty looked right at home in the Empire’s wonderful Dick Whittington. Hackney still remains the jewel in London’s pantomime crown and this year’s Fairy Bowbells, aka Rina Fatania, almost stole the show, much like Tameka Empson did the last time the Empire produced the title.

I’m not convinced anything is ever entirely new in Pantoland, but sometimes things are presented in fresh new ways which invigorate the genre and ensure it keeps evolving. The Lyric Hammersmith’s Cinderella was definitely a new breed of pantomime, re-inventing the narrative whilst Jane Deane’s female Comic at Horsham showed that female Comics work perfectly in pantomime. I also enjoyed Basildon’s modern take on Peter Pan, with Mrs Darling a velour tracksuit wearing WAG. Particularly impressive was the decision to have Pan’s shadow played by a member of the ensemble in a black morphsuit, which enabled Pan to chase his shadow around the Darling’s bedroom and call on him in times of need. Sevenoaks’s version of the ‘12 Days of Christmas’ which used Chinese takeaway menu items instead of the now usual ‘bra that was made to hold three’ and ‘five toilet roles’, was also a welcome deviation from the usual.

After years of Christmas musicals and musical-pantos, Jack and the Beanstalk marked a brand new era of pantomime for the Mayflower, Southampton as Qdos returned to venue having last produced there in 2004. A huge success, Qdos will stage Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates next year at the theatre as the production, including Brian Conley, transfers from the Birmingham Hippodrome in what was probably the most spectacular production of the season full of glitz, glamour and special effects.

Spectacle is one aspect of pantomime, but of course no pantomime would be complete without a toe-tapping score. 2012’s song of the season has to be ‘Gangnam Style’ with younger members of the audience jumping to their feet with joy as soon as they heard those now infamous chords. Another popular song was ‘Life’s a Happy Song’ from The Muppet Movie, whilst productions in Southampton and Worthing used ’Mahna Mahna’ to great effect in a bit of audience participation. It was a great shame though, that in about three-quarters of productions, over amplification spoiled the sound and that there appears to be an industry over-reliance on backing tracks.

With 2012 a bumper year for news and events, topical referencing abounded. There were nods to the Olympics in most productions, with few referencing the Jubilee, but the topical reference that got the most laughs across the board was mentions of ‘Plebgate’. The Queen’s Opening Ceremony ’parachute jump’ was often parodied and for those lucky pantomimes still running into late January and February, quick-witted casts managed to squeeze in many a horse meat gag. There were also a surprising number of productions that weighed in on the women bishops debate. Who ever said panto was no longer political?