A Woke New World

Of all the words to describe panto season 2020, perhaps the most used by the media was ‘woke’.

For the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, many a review used the term to describe its Cinderella in which social media savvy sisters Topsy and Popsy, played by women, were trying to rebrand as the Cuddly Sisters whilst Cinderella dreamt of a career as an astro-scientist. Cinderella only went to the Royal Ball to experience the stars in a non air-polluted environment where she and the awkwardly shy Prince Bob fell in love, not on account of looks, but on account of literally bumping in to each other due to Bob losing his spectacles. But this wasn’t the only happy pairing, Cinderella’s best friend, a female Buttons, fell in love with Cinderella’s stepsister Popsy which resulted in marriage at the show’s triumphant conclusion.

Other productions that attracted the same criticism were the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s Dick Whittington and the Lighthouse Poole’s Jack and the Beanstalk. In Stratford, Dick’s sidekick was a cat who wanted to be a dog, Alice revealed she had a secret in musical number “Thereby hangs my tail” and King Rat kidnapped the children to steal their dreams to fuel his plan. The show, like many, featured an environmental message, which was also present in Peter Duncan’s Jack and the Beanstalk at Lighthouse, Poole.

Advertised as a “planet-saving” panto, Duncan’s Jack and the Beanstalk encompassed themes including recycling, carbon neutrality and climate change denial and attracted headlines for a scene in which children, including ‘Greta Thunberg’, were imprisoned by the Giant due to participating in school strikes over climate change.

Science and the environment are key issues in contemporary society and encouraging young women into STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has long been on the agenda of schools. The Cambridge Arts Centre’s Dick Whittington of 2009 made Alice a trainee plumber and since the mid-2010s other venues have followed suit. This year, the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford’s Princess Aurora was a physicist and engineer with Prince Florizel an eco-warrier vlogger.

Are these productions ‘woke’, or rather, do they embrace and respond to contemporary society, teaching audiences about social, environmental and political issues? Pantomime has always been didactic and today creatives in regional theatres are righty re-assessing the genre, not only its narratives, but the positive role pantomime can play, particularly with its diverse audience and status as a child’s first experience of theatre. Who, for example, could argue against the Capitol Theatre, Horsham’s non-binary Tink in Peter Pan? Or dissent against Birmingham Hippodrome’s plot change that saw Snow White save the Prince from a poison apple? These two examples are small changes that make a big different, but in the case of the Lyric Hammersmith and Theatre Royal Stratford East, the desire to add multiple layers appears to have confused rather than improved the narrative.