Panto Dame putting on his makeup in the dressing room at the Lichfield Garrick Theatre (C) Pamela Raith Photography
So it’s that time of year again. Oh yes it is – the time when any two members of the theatre industry who happen to run into each other will instinctively ask ‘Are you doing panto?’
From Beauty and the Beast at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness to A Christmas Cornish Carol at the Acorn Theatre, Penzance, for the next few weeks you’ll never be more than a few miles away from the unique cultural institution that is pantomime. Getting a berth in one of the hundreds of festive shindigs throughout the country means guaranteed employment at a time of the year when those of us who work in the theatre industry most need it; but it comes at a price, as you navigate a high-energy regime of ten or twelve shows per week, with a mere 24 hours to race home and gulp down a Brussel sprout with your loved ones before returning for the Boxing Day matinee. No wonder that one ageing thesp who I quizzed on his imminent job prospects replied laconically, ‘Panto? It’s a young persons game.’
There’s been a lot of discussion across social media this time round as to whether some of the traditional elements of panto are still appropriate in 2019, given that men play women, women play men, and old-fashioned cultural stereotypes such as Wishy-Washy and Abanazar still abound.
But panto is a robust old institution, and on the evidence of this season’s offerings, it seems to be gleefully assimilating modern mores without so much as a backward glance. Which is just as well, for pantomime can still be a genuinely binding influence for good in a local community, offering up a live theatrical experience that is both popular, and in the very best sense, parochial.
By way of example, one of my favourite theatrical experiences of recent years was a visit to see Jack & The Beanstalk at the Regal Theatre, Tenbury Wells. For those of you who don’t know where Tenbury Wells is, neither did I, till a friend of mine moved to Shropshire and found himself playing Simple Simon in their seasonal production.
The matinee performance I attended on Boxing Day was stuffed with good things, including a full house consisting of local families, all of who seemed to know one another. Topical references to nearby towns and current local news stories brought gales of laughter, even if they went entirely over my head. Here was community theatre at its very best – bespoke, inclusive and celebratory. Best of all, every time my friend wavered in his determination to climb the beanstalk to save Jack from the giant (an occurrence which happened about every ten minutes) three hundred happy voices chorused the mantra ‘BE BRAVE SIMON’ in keeping with his instructions (and the best panto tradition). Needless to say all ended happily.
This Christmas I’ll be taking my great-niece and nephew to see Sleeping Beauty at the Beck Theatre in Hayes, where I’m sure there’ll be all the familiar ingredients as well as several well-aimed jokes about Brexit. And what of my friend in Shropshire? Well he’s giving it a miss this year. In fact he contacted me only this week to say he was up for a nice part in a major TV series and was worried lest nerves at his imminent recall get the better of him.
My three-word reply by text encapsulated all that any of us need to remember as we enter an uncertain New Year in this most unpredictable of professions. ‘Be brave Simon…’