Debates around gender were re-ignited after the Palladium yet again revealed an initial cast comprising all men. A survey of commercial companies’ 2019 posters revealed that, on average, 29% of performers depicted were women, with female performers headlining only a third of all shows.
There is a positive correlation between the decrease in women on stage and the increase in producers employing drag artistes as Fairy or Villainess, not forgetting the rise of the male Immortal. The only male role to be in decline is that of Baron, which is rapidly disappearing in productions of Cinderella. Representation is vital in establishing Pantoland’s shared community, so producers need to think carefully about a cast’s constituency.
As history has shown with music hall, variety, television and film, pantomime seeks to profit from the popular with shows such as RuPaul’s Drag Race influencing the genre. Ensuring an LGBTQI presence is a positive advancement here, with more and more productions featuring rainbow flags and queer characters, but there has to be traffic both ways: where are all the male roles played by women? The female Principal Boy can only be seen in around 10% of pantomimes.
Flying the flag, the Tron Theatre, Glasgow produced the all-female Cinderfella in which Cinderella sought the business advice of Princess Charmaine complete with cross-dressed stepbrothers and cross-dressed disguises to gain entry to the Palace Ball, whilst Clapham’s Theatre 503 staged The Fairytale Revolution: Wendy's Big Adventure, an all-female reimagining of Peter Pan where Wendy and Hook unite to defeat an evil oppressive narrator.
2019 also saw a number of female Comics such as Nicola Jayne Ingram as Hester the Jester at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield and female Dames including Elaine C Smith at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow and Leah MacRae at the SEC Armadillo, Glasgow. Smith and MacRae’s casting along with The Tron’s all female Cinderfella meant that no Glaswegian family pantomime featured a male Male as the Pavilion’s Pinocchio dispensed with the character.
In addition, the season saw more female Ugly and Wicked Sisters than ever take to the stage at the Theatre Royal, Norwich, Reading Hexagon and His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen as regular Dames played Fairy Godmothers and Baronesses. But is the increase in women playing Ugly and Wicked roles something to be welcomed? Or, rather, should we applaud the opportunity for more women to play comic roles, as the Sisters frequently are?