Lyn Gardner writes about theatre for the stage and the independent and is recipient of the 2017 UK Theatre Award for outstanding contribution to British Theatre.
Up and down the country the panto season is getting underway. From Hackney to York, and Plymouth to Aberdeen, panto dames are wriggling into their crinolines and rouging their cheeks in the dressing room mirror.
I like to think that looking over their shoulders, somewhere in the shadows, are some of the great pantomime dames of the past: Joseph Grimaldi, the genius clown, who was one of the first panto dames, the great Dan Leno, and the later variety turned TV entertainers such as Arthur Askey who always pulled on their bloomers at Christmas time.
I reckon that we should always prize a great panto dame—and Hackney’s Clive Rowe and York’s Berwick Kaler are two of the most sublime and longest serving – just as much as we fete a great King Lear.
It should be no surprise that over a decade ago Sir Ian McKellen took to the Old Vic stage for two Christmas seasons as a Widow Twankey fulfilling a long-cherished ambition to play in pantomime, a signal that there is as much skill in playing panto as Shakespeare. In fact, I often think that if Shakespeare wandered into a panto he would understand the form immediately. The gravedigger in Hamlet and the Porter in Macbeth would be right at home in a pantomime.
Pantomime is also a great place for designers, directors and writers to really learn about creating theatre. Writing and directing a panto is a real lesson in both craft and engaging an audience. Bore them for a second and you will lose them. Writing a really good pantomime requires no less skill than writing a mainstage play at the Royal Court. It is all new writing. Richard Bean, Mark Ravenhill, Joel Horwood and Morgan Lloyd Malcolm are just a few who have tried their hand at the form in recent years.
Pantomime is one of the foundations of the British theatre culture and at its outrageous, cross-dressing best, it is a joy: two-and-a half hours of carnivalesque glee that turns the world upside down so that women play men, men play women and the normal order of life is rudely and joyously subverted.
But sometimes I think that we don’t cherish it as much as we might. It is seen as a blip—albeit often a hugely lucrative one—in a theatre’s calendar, rather than the main event. There is sometimes a sense that it’s not really proper theatre. Yet it is the most democratic form that we have and one that cuts across class divides and genres more than any other form.
If we really care about the fact that the Warwick Report into Cultural Value found that the wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse eight per cent of the population are most culturally active, and want to do something about it, then the pantomime is a very good place to start.
That’s because over the next month or so hundreds of thousands of people will be going to the theatre. For many, particularly the very young, it will be their first trip to the theatre and for many others it will be their only trip of the year. Why do they think that the pantomime is for them but are never tempted back for the rest of the year? Why don’t theatres ask themselves more keenly what it is about their programmes and the way they engage with their local community, that regular panto-goers are not transformed into year round theatre goers?
I suspect that just as education and community work is often hived off to another part of the theatre rather than being seen as core to a theatre’s activity, so the pantomime is only seen as a cash cow rather than as much a part of the theatre’s artistic offering as any other show. Is real value—as a way to engage directly with the community and start an on-going conversation with them—is not recognised by artistic directors because they are not directly involved in it. They view it as outside of the rest of the programme rather than integral to it.
But if we recognised that it is the most important moment of the year for any theatre, because it is the moment when a venue comes face to face with those it does not serve for the rest of the year, then maybe we might find out a great deal about why panto audiences love the two-and-a-half-hours they spend in a theatre every December but are reluctant to return. And if we could do that, then maybe theatres would discover that it really can be Christmas all year around.Back to Journal