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Panto News: December 2018

Published: 8 December 2018

2018 has been a year of many anniversaries. From the centenary of women's suffrage to 50 years since the abolition of stage censorship and 30 years since the passing of Section 28 (repealed in Scotland in 2000 and the rest of the UK in 2003), discussions around gender and sexuality have dominated the news.

As seasonal entertainment, pantomime locks in the sentiment of its time and can be a helpful tool in recovering history. A quasi-living newspaper of the year, what might future historians discover about society when they revisit 2018 via Pantoland? How have discussions around gender and sexuality in particular shaped the season ahead?

Mammy Goose at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow has become the first regional production to fully embrace a gay love-story. Key to its narrative, Mammy Goose’s son Jack and Vanity Visage’s son Will receive their own happy ending in the now rarely produced tale. Of course, 2005 saw Aladdin’s policemen Hanky and Panky get hitched at the Old Vic in the same year the Marriage (Same Sex) Act was passed, but over the last five years, few commercial and regional family pantomimes have embraced gay relationships. During the mid-2000s, openly gay writers such as Mark Ravenhill and Stephen Fry turned their hand to the genre with the period dubbed "pink panto" as a result, but whilst there's always been plenty of pink in panto, it just hasn't always made itself visible. Part of this, of course, is due to society's changing attitudes towards homosexuality, representations of which were frequently banned under the Lord Chamberlain's blue pencil for fear they would corrupt the audience.

Pantomime's survival is down to its very willingness to evolve and much has changed in both the form and society since the Victorian era. Principal Boys are now more likely to be played by a male performer, but in recent years writers have considered other roles for female actors to address the imbalance of parts. There is still plenty more to be done to ensure women aren't eradicated from the pantomime stage or simply included to perpetuate negative Victorian gender constructs, but certain casting patterns are slowly taking off.

Jack and the Beanstalk stands out as the title that embraced this change the most, with Jack becoming Jacqueline, Jackie or simply Jack at the Macrobert, Stirling (2011), Lyric Hammersmith (2013, 2017) and Harrogate Theatre (2018). Similarly, pantomime writer Jonny McKnight successfully transformed Dick into Chick Whittington in 2017 and wrote a female Aladdin in 2014, achieving strong independent female characters and new inspirational narratives all with the simple switch of a gender.

So if roles have been re-focused in the realm of the Principal Boy, so too have they in the evil lairs of the Villain. The Swan, Worcester has cast a female Sheriff of Nottingham this year in their re-aligned Maid Marian and the Merry Men, whilst 2017 saw the Towngate Theatre, Basildon welcome resident Villain Sophy Ladds back as Aunty Banazar. Vikki Stone has led the way with her comedic cross-dressed antics as Abanazar and Fleshcreep at the Lyric Hammersmith, to be seen this year for Paul Holman Associates in Worthing, with Margaret Cabourn-Smith picking up Stone's baton at the Lyric providing a sense of continuity. Prior to the Lyric's trailblazing new approaches to the form, Jimmy Krankie was one of the only examples of comedic female to male cross dressing upon the pantomime stage, with Jane Deane still one of the genre's only examples of a female Comic evidenced in Horsham's Snow White of 2012.

From heroes and heroines to wand wavers and wish fulfillers, many a Fairy has become a Spirit in recent times, popularised by Julian Clary, Gok Wan, Paul O’Grady and Louie Spence. Frequently performed by openly gay celebrities, such an interpretation can be seen this year at the Maltings, Ely with Gregory Hazel's Spirit of the Beans, whilst in Canterbury Paul O'Grady makes a virtual appearance as the Grand High Fairy at the Marlowe Theatre.

But if men are now playing the benevolent agent, malevolent ones have also been embraced as cross-dressed Wicked Queens, Baronesses and Enchantresses grow ever stronger in popularity. The field of drag has greatly influenced this latest trend, and indeed over the past four years the Damehood itself has welcomed a number of drag performers into its bosom. This year sees La Voix in Aylesbury, Ruby Murry in Middleton, Myra DuBois in Hoddesdon, not forgetting J P McCue in Leamington Spa, Dave Lynn in Worthing, Jason Sutton in High Wycombe and Ceri Dupree in Swansea. Whilst we've yet to see female Dames really take off, with the likes of Elaine C Smith playing Twankey in Glasgow this year, such stellar performances might just popularise the approach and lead to yet more roles opening up to female performers.

So if productions are focusing on representation and chiming with the times, 2018 also marks a number of performer and venue anniversaries, celebrating decades of commitment to the form.

Whilst 2018 marks the 250th anniversary of circus, big-top themed Golidlocks and the Three Bears at Newcastle Theatre Royal celebrates Steve Arnott's decade of villainy at the venue. In fact, 2018 sees several similar anniversaries and, as well as the aforementioned Lyric Hammersmith, Above the Stag celebrates its tenth season of pantomime, Imagine Theatre enters its tenth year of producing, Jez Edwards appears in his tenth pantomime at Leeds Carriageworks, Brad Clapson returns to Bracknell for the tenth time, the Floral Pavilion, New Brighton welcomes its tenth panto after re-opening and Neil Hurst treads the boards in his tenth year as resident Comic in Halifax.

The Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks also celebrates ten years of panto, where producers claim to have the first gender-fluid Dame in Danny Beard’s Spirit of London with the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin’s Snow Queen featuring a gender-fluid unicorn called Peggy.

The most revered of all Dame roles, Brad Fitt plays Mother Goose in Theatre Severn's tenth pantomime since the venue opened in 2009, but perhaps the biggest anniversary and news of all is that after forty years of directing, writing and Daming at York Theatre Royal, Berwick Kaler is set to retire with The Grand Old Dame of York.

Very few practitioners stand the test of time, but along with Kaler at York and Kenneth Alan Taylor at Nottingham Playhouse, Susie McKenna at the Hackney Empire surely constitutes one of contemporary pantomime's finest. This year she celebrates 20 years of writing and directing at the venue, whilst the Millfield Theatre, Edmonton welcomes its 30th pantomime since the venue opened. 2018 also marks anniversary years for the Theatre Royal Windsor and Grange Theatre, Northwich who celebrate 80 and 10 years of pantomimes respectively with productions of Dick Whittington.

Congratulations to everyone celebrating an anniversary this year. With three reviews already under my belt, I look forward to seeing many more pantomimes in my tenth year reviewing for the British Theatre Guide.

Simon Sladen