Historian Simon Sladen: Why pantomime must be updated for the modern age
With historical character names from the Victorian era increasingly prompting accusations of racism, Simon Sladen argues that the best seasonal shows reinvent the form to reflect today’s society
Earlier this year, a casting call for Aladdin at the Bedworth Civic Hall, which advertised the roles of Chow Mein Slave of the Ring/Villager and PC Pong Ping, was branded “offensive” and “racist” by actor and writer Maryam Hamidi on Twitter.
Respondents commenting under the subsequent news story, posted on the Coventry Telegraph’s Facebook page, saw it differently. Many echoed the sentiment of resident Sandra Gillespie: “Oh my God. PC gone mad. Utter snowflakes!”
While character names such as Ching Ching, Chow Chow and Souchong can be traced back to the Prince of Wales Theatre’s staging of Aladdin in 1884, many wrongly presumed pantomime’s imperial past had faded.
The days of Robinson Crusoe massacring a whole host of cannibals and being applauded are thankfully long behind us
The days of Ada Blanche’s 1893 Robinson Crusoe massacring a whole host of cannibals and being applauded are thankfully long behind us. In 2018, there is only one professional production of the tale, at Greenwich Theatre, while the 2009 staging at Worthing’s Connaught Theatre omitted Friday completely in favour of the white comic role Manfred Day. Qdos Entertainment added Caribbean pirates and swapped Man for Girl Friday in 2008, with current chairman Nick Thomas’ 1981 production transporting the whole thing to space.
But erasure isn’t the answer. While venues such as Theatre Royal Stratford East have long celebrated diverse casts, in 2018 it’s still the case that performers of colour are most likely to be cast in Aladdin, as a villain or a fairy. Such practices help perpetuate negative stereotypes and deprive audiences of diverse and positive role models. A look at the commercial sector’s posters reveals that more than 92% of performers depicted are white. While such advertising doesn’t represent the entire production’s ensemble, or even the entire principal cast, posters play a key role in getting over a company’s message.
Victorian England openly celebrated Empire with pantomimes capturing the sentiment of their day. Race relations and gender roles were played out upon the stage with women parodied, whiteness lauded, and other cultures depicted as uneducated, simple and in need of British intervention. As the Star’s critic wrote of Drury Lane’s 1900 pantomime: “Only a great nation could have done such a thing; only an undisciplined nation would have done it.”
Frequently a child’s first theatrical experience, and many a graduate’s first professional role, pantomime has the ability to set agendas, particularly with its fairytale morality. In an age when Keira Knightley bans her daughter from watching Disney’s The Little Mermaid and Cinderella because of a lack of female empowerment, and Kristen Bell airs concern over Snow White’s non-consensual kiss, there is an ever-growing awareness that stages need to tackle social issues head on and be more representative.
But what role can the pantomime industry play in all this? Figures from the National Database of Pantomime Performance suggest female principal boys appear in only 16% of productions, with many being replaced by a male counterpart. A survey of Qdos Entertainment and UK Productions’ 2018 pantomimes reveals that some posters don’t even feature a female performer, with an average male to female ratio of two to one. This, added to a year-on-year increase in drag villains, male immortals and dame fairies, means female presence on the pantomime stage is not as strong as it once was.
However, a number of contemporary practitioners are rewriting narratives to celebrate inspirational women and challenge centuries of inherited practice. Johnny McKnight, Joel Horwood, Tom Wells, Phil Lowe and David Browne have all switched Jack for Jackie in versions of the beanstalk tale. The 2018 pantomime at Worcester’s Swan Theatre refocuses the traditional Robin Hood narrative as Maid Marian and the Merry Men. As writer and chief executive Chris Jaeger explains: “Things move on. We’ve got a strong female lead and we think this will be a really nice touch, something a little bit different. Historically we didn’t even allow women to be actors. Times have to change.”
But it’s not only heroes becoming heroines. In some shows, villains are turning villainess, as with the Swan Theatre’s Sheriff of Nottingham or Aunty Banazar at Basildon’s Towngate Theatre last year. Panto is known for its playful approach to gender but until now cross-dressing was the sole preserve of principal boy and dame. Vikki Stone’s wonderfully eccentric portrayals of Fleshcreep and Abanazar have revitalised the genre and remind us that in Pantoland nothing should ever be set in stone.
Audiences have long accepted the names from Wishee Washee, referencing Victorian Chinese laundries, to Widow Twankey. Across the majority of 2018’s productions Ping and Pong, Sergeant Pingpong and PC Pongo will continue to seek Aladdin’s capture, apart from at the Hackney Empire where Susie McKenna has opted for Dishi in place of Wishee and used local cuisines for Sergeant Dumplin and Constable Ackee.
“The change of names was deliberate,” McKenna says. “We set our stall out from the beginning about being multicultural, diverse and modern. In my Sleeping Beauty, for example, Princess Tahlia was awoken by Nanny Nora. True love doesn’t have to be about a man and a woman. Love is love. Rather than let it stagnate, pantomime has to move on and evolve as tastes change, attitudes change and cultural politics change.”
Robert Marsden has noticed a marked decrease in the number of productions enforcing oriental choreography and make-up since he directed his first professional pantomime in 1999. “There’s also been a change from the Slave of the Ring to the Genie of the Ring,” he says. “If as an industry we still believe Aladdin is a strong story, we need to address how we tell it.”
Producers, writers, directors and designers are aware of pantomime’s inherited past, but real change has only begun recently. While Aladdin’s Egypt and Dick Whittington’s Morocco are often dispensed with in favour of North or South Poles, Peter Pan’s Indians often speak in pidgin English for comic effect.
Where do we go from here? This year should act as a wake-up call for the genre. Victorian writers didn’t care for standardisation, which has sadly become accepted and enforced due to stock sets, costumes and scripts. We need to break free and embrace new interpretations. All traditions were invented by someone. It’s time to conjure up some new ones.
If you’d like to read more stories from the history of entertainment, The Stage Archive offers access to all back issues of the paper from 1880 to 2007 and is available from £15