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Editor’s View: Panto season puts theatre under the microscope

Alexia Khadime and Sharon D Clarke in Hackney Empire's Sleeping Beauty – a production which The Stage described as 'explicitly political'. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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For some, it has already started. For others, it will  soon be upon them. A few sorry souls will be preparing  to stick their heads in the  sand and pretend it isn’t happening at all. Lo, panto approaches.

British theatre’s most traditional genre is theatre distilled to its vital elements, put under a magnifying glass and pumped out through a loudspeaker. It is when theatres and theatremakers are at their busiest: performers perform more, dressers dress more, technicians twiddle more knobs, as Julian Clary might say.

Read our exclusive interview with Julian Clary

Everyone works longer hours, audiences are bigger and box office tills ring to the sound of repurposed pop hits, ditties about Brexit or Boris and the latest dance craze (flossing).

With this extreme concentration of activity, the key issues affecting the theatre sector and the wider world are brought into tighter focus in the festive season. Questions that theatre has been asking itself in the other 10 months of the year now appear even more urgent.

Content is central to this: how a traditional form can portray and appeal to a modern, diverse Britain. But it also extends to the many workforce issues that The Stage writes about throughout the year: parenting commitments during the busy Christmas holiday season; mental health problems flaring up when people are faced with gruelling schedules; rates of pay becoming a greater bone of contention; inappropriate workplace behaviour being more likely to occur in what can be a playful backstage atmosphere.

Even wider societal issues are thrown into relief. Simon Sladen observes that some people in Coventry objected to attempts to update a pantomime’s Asian character names to avoid offence as “PC gone mad”. This is a reminder that cultural values vary across the UK, among individual audiences and even within different generations of the same family.

Pantomime, as theatre at its most inclusive, must find a way to appeal to all the people in an increasingly divided country.

There is an irony that theatre’s most seemingly frivolous genre should have to cope with such weighty issues, but it is a burden panto is capable of shouldering, as countless shows have proven over the years.

Inventive productions in York, Ipswich, Nottingham and Hackney, and even the mega-panto at the London Palladium, have shown that this chameleon art form can – when it puts its mind to it – navigate society’s choppy waters without losing its core sense of fun, irreverence and ability to inspire the next generation.


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