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Lyn Gardner: Humbug to the naysayers, pantomime is theatre at its most riotous

Vikki Stone in Jack and the Beanstalk at Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton Vikki Stone in Jack and the Beanstalk at Lyric Hammersmith. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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It’s the time of the year when I’m out on panto patrol, checking out those beanstalks and gazing wondrously at the Aladdin’s caves stuffed with treasure. What fun. Yet, I’ve lost count of the number of commiserations I’ve received from normally sensible theatre lovers who assume that going to the pantomime must be a penance rather than a pleasure.

These are the people who populate auditoriums for 11 months of the year, but have such a panto aversion that they take December off. I’m inclined to think anyone who says they hate panto either hasn’t been (or at least not for many years), is lying, or is a downright snob trying to silence their inner child who secretly wants the chance to shout: “he’s behind you.”

Just because something is popular, doesn’t make it bad, any more than a play written by Shakespeare or Pinter doesn’t automatically make a production good. I have sat through teeth-grindingly dull revivals of King Lear, and seen glorious, life enhancing five-star pantos.

Yes, there are always some poorly-executed pantomimes every year, created by managements who cynically think a substandard product can be disguised with a few well-placed sequins. And I’m glad to see The Stage has been calling them out.

But the best pantos all around the country are artful affairs, with all the artists involved doing what they do with real craft and extraordinary imagination. A great dame can be as much a theatrical pinnacle as a Great Dane and should be treated with no less respect.

As Ian McKellen discovered some years ago when he gave his Widow Twankey at the Old Vic being a dame is demanding, and while some of the country’s best dames have perfected the trick of making it look like eating silk off a spoon, it’s harder than it looks.

Smart theatres realise the annual panto is not just an opportunity to meet new audiences, but new writers and directors and allows more experienced creatives to spread their wings in unexpected directions. One of the reasons I love the Lyric Hammersmith panto (Jack and the Beanstalk this year) is they take the form seriously. They commission some of the country’s most interesting playwrights and best directors to test themselves at working in an art form that can easily defeat those who fail to appreciate its delicate intricacies. The Lyric treats the panto in exactly the same way it treats any other piece of new writing.

There is a lot to be learned from a successful panto. This is particularly true at a time when theatres are feeling the squeeze and sometimes struggle to get bums on seats. Or to get the racially, economically and socially diverse audience that panto frequently delivers to them outside of the festive season.

Panto is a naturally inclusive art form in many ways, not least because of how it engages directly with its audience. Every single performance is relaxed and it transforms auditoriums into social spaces in which young and old can share an exuberant live experience together.

I think it’s a pity when the ratio of smut to sequins is so high it deters family audiences

Christmas is one of the few times of the year when theatre doesn’t segment its audience but welcomes everyone, whatever their age. Much as I enjoyed this year’s Palladium Panto, Dick Whittington, I think it’s a pity when the ratio of smut to sequins is so high it deters family audiences from booking. Particularly as the Palladium offers such a gasp-out-loud spectacle.

So much theatre is an adult-only affair that it seems perverse to take an art form that naturally encourages the theatregoing habit and create a show that doesn’t cater to the needs of all the family.

The pleasure of a really good panto is that it can offer something for everyone from adult jokes and satire (Oxford’s Jack and the Beanstalk features a 10ft Donald Trump puppet) through traditional slapstick and the enchantment that entrances children on their first trip to the theatre and stays with them for the rest of their lives.

Jack and the Beanstalk review at Oxford Playhouse – ‘brilliantly engaging theatricality’

The other reason people sometimes give for eschewing panto is because they feel the modern version is a pale imitation of its glory days. It was ever thus. In 1883, the Times was lamenting the influence of the music hall and its stars on panto, just as some lament the casting of TV celebrities today.

The point about pantomime is that it is a constantly shape-shifting form, and that is the very reason why it has survived. When any form of theatre becomes fossilised it is time to move it off the stage and into the museum.

But in the face of competition from other popular art forms – from the movies to TV and into the age of Netflix – panto continues to thrive because it is adaptable and provides audiences with an alternative: a live experience so riotous that in watching and joining in it makes us feel more alive. Who wouldn’t want theatre that can do that?