It's Behind Them!
With us now almost half way between Panto Season 2019 and Panto Season 2020, it’s time to take stock and reflect.
In a year that saw panto finales celebrate Elton John biopic Rocketman and Gloria Estefan musical On Your Feet, it was Billie Eilish’s “bad guy” that took the Villain’s top spot with ensembles across the country energising audiences thanks to Lizzo’s “Blame it on the Juice”. A living newspaper of the year, pantomimes always feature some of the year’s biggest hits to help anchor them in the present and encourage a sense of community. But communities change, and perhaps 2019 is best defined as a year of beginnings and endings as practitioners move on and audiences evolve.
2019 marked the first panto season without the Krankies, Fine Time Fontayne and Berwick Kaler on stage due to retirement. Richard J Fletcher graduated to Dame at the Oldham Coliseum, having served as Fontayne’s Comic, and Martin Barrass stepped into Kaler’s boots at York Theatre Royal. Towards the end of the season, it seemed that ‘York Gate’ might overshadow all other news with the announcement that new producers would be engaged for Panto Season 2020.
Kaler, who had written the pantomime, argued that Sleeping Beauty had suffered under the theatre’s new Executive Director Tom Bird, with the theatre quoting diminishing ticket sales as its reason for a new outlook. The row escalated to national press and in a strange turn of events concluded with Kaler and the regular team of Barrass, David Leonard, Susie Cooper and A J Powell being engaged by commercial producers Qdos Entertainment for their inaugural pantomime at Ambassador Theatre Group owned York Opera House.
But the topsy-turvy-dom didn’t end there. The subsided York Theatre Royal later announced they had engaged commercial producers Evolution Productions to stage Cinderella for 2020. Evolution Productions has a history of successfully turning around a venue’s pantomime fortune; at the Alban Arena, St. Albans sales increased 59% between 2010 and 2019, whilst at the Grove Theatre, Dunstable capacity increased 35% between 2017 and 2019 to 90%.
Another venue set to experience great change is the Hackney Empire, where, after twenty-one years, pantomime writer, director and frequent performer Susie McKenna announced that she would be leaving to take up her new position as Associate Director at the Kiln Theatre. McKenna has been fundamental in the evolution of pantomime, encouraging diverse casts and updating storylines to not only reflect Hackney’s community, but wider contemporary issues too.
Her last pantomime for the venue, Dick Whittington and his Cat, was a prime example of her skill at taking a centuries-old story and giving it new depth through a narrative that saw Dick journey to England on the SS Empire Windrush, seeking a new life and falling in love with Irish shopworker Alice. Never forced, the production addressed the history of Empire and prejudice whilst reminding audiences that the Windrush scandal was still ongoing and encouraging a message of community.
Also waving goodbye to its pantomime guru is the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire. For the past decade, Gary Bridgens has been at the helm of the venue’s festive show and in 2019 completely overhauled the usual oriental Aladdin to set it in Richmond itself. The Emperor became a rent collector with his daughter Jazz Dillydally falling in love with Aladdin. In place of the enchanted cave was a lock-up in neighbouring Darlington; a treasure trove of pantomime props and costumes, not forgetting that all-important magic lamp.