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Paul Vale: Is panto evolving, or is it stuck in the past?

Scene from Rapunzel at Stratford East

Even before the final tally of box office receipts, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s been a very good year for pantomime. Last year’s figures amounted to a record £60 million and as David Brownlee’s number crunching for The Stage has established [1], pantomime really does provide a much-needed financial boost for theatres year-on-year.

The Stage has despatched reviewers around the country to catch as many productions as possible [2] and it’s encouraging to see so many four and five-star raves. If nothing else, it proves that pantomime is not simply a money spinner, but if taken seriously, it can be of relevant artistic merit too. It can feature the best light-entertainment performers, the greatest vocalists, the work of intelligent choreographers and writers, and the most resourceful designers.

Pantomime is often mooted as a child’s first experience of theatre [3] and if this is the case, then it also has a huge responsibility for excellence. But it’s a genre so entrenched in tradition, that it’s all too easy to become complacent. Artistically, pantomime has three goals – chiefly family entertainment, fantasy spectacle and audience engagement.

]Theatre Royal Stratford East and Lyric Hammersmith both run independent pantomimes that deliver this regularly, progressing the form into the 21st century. Outside London, some theatres are opting out of pantomime altogether and producing family-friendly entertainment of a different sort such as the Curve’s musical Scrooge [4], Birmingham Rep’s The One Hundred and One Dalmatians [5], and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe [6] at West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Elsewhere, the genre’s biggest producer Qdos Entertainment dominated the season with spectacular productions in Birmingham, Southampton and the London Palladium among others. The latter, in particular, was impressively extravagant. [7]

But the company has also garnered some very poor reviews [8] for shows including Wimbledon, Richmond, Milton Keynes and Bristol. Lacklustre design, lazy writing and, perhaps worst of all, self-satisfied performances amplify the weaknesses of the form. The criticisms have ranged from tired gags and stale routines to jokes that verge on the misogynistic. This is especially odd when the story relies on a central, traditional romance.

Since the disappearance of the principal boy role somewhere in the 1980s, there’s been very little for women in pantomime. It may be called Cinderella, but you can pretty much guarantee that it’ll be Prince Charming, the Ugly Sisters or Buttons topping the bill. Pantomime has become a man’s game and it’s beginning to show. The over-arching moral of good conquering evil remains intact, but what’s wrong with developing the story or, indeed, creating new stories that reflect modern society?

During the years, major producers have cannily introduced gimmicks to up the ante, including everything from Hollywood stars to 3D sequences. We may have said farewell to that level of stunt casting but the 3D sequences have evolved. At best, they provide as measure of excitement lacking in the story and at worse, they replace the need for a scene change.

World’s Biggest Panto Ltd continues to try to adapt the form to a stadium setting but it doesn’t really work, despite throwing money at water fountains and big-screen animation at Peter Pan [9]. Ultimately, British pantomime is an intimate art form, where the fourth wall is dropped and the audience becomes part of the show.

Just before the season opened, Qdos Entertainment’s Michael Harrison saw the sense in removing an offensive scene from the company’s repertoire [10] but John Barrowman still made headlines [11] with what one audience member referred to as the “raw vulgarity” of a double entendre.

Change might be coming, but it is coming slowly. In the past few years, theatre more widely has seen huge shifts in its commitment to diversity and equality and – despite progress being made, for example the much more ethnically diverse cast in the London Palladium’s panto this year – pantomime still has some catching up to do.