With Clive Rowe back at Hackney, Julian Clary in his third consecutive year at the Palladium and Berwick Kaler in his 40th and final year at York, old traditions and newer ones are flourishing in panto land.
But panto — being, at root, a form of variety entertainment — has always flourished by accommodating the new and the novel: what, in other genres, we call “stunt” casting, whether that’s parachuting in the latest Britain’s Got Talent winner (even if it’s a dog called Pudsey or dance troupe such as Diversity), a cult TV star (Sharon Osbourne, Gok Wan, David Hasselhoff, Pamela Anderson or Kim Woodburn, the latter appearing this year at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre), an erstwhile politician (Ann Widdecombe), or sports star (Frank Bruno, Ian Botham).
But, ever since Ian McKellen took to the Old Vic stage as Widow Twankey in 2014, a different kind of respectability has come to panto. Now so-called ‘serious’ actors can also let their hair down (or put it up, as required).
Here are the top panto titles I would like to see cast with (some) of these actors or personalities:
1. Cinderella vs Hamlet: How about a production of Cinderella, cast purely from actors who have played the title role in Hamlet?
Cinderella – Maxine Peake
Buttons – Andrew Scott
Prince Charming – Paapa Essiedu
Dandini – Benedict Cumberbatch
Fairy Godmother – Michelle Terry
Ugly Sisters – Simon Russell Beale and Mark Rylance
Stepmother – Frances De La Tour
2. Jack up and Down the Beanstalk: This is (literally) an upstairs-downstairs sort of story, so perhaps a canny panto producer can persuade some of the cast of Downton Abbey to star in it (and Julian Fellowes can script a new version).
Jack Trot – Joanna Froggatt (if played as a woman), Rob James-Collier (if played by a man)
Princess Beatrice – Laura Carmichael
King Bertram – Hugh Bonneville
Dame Trot – Maggie Smith
Mr Giant – Jim Carter
Mrs Giant – Phyllis Logan
Fairy – Lesley Nicol
3. London’s Dick Whittington: There’s no more London panto than Dick Whittington, so let’s have a version starring actors associated with the city.
Dick Whittington – Cush Jumbo
King Rat – Boris Johnson (former mayor, cast to type)
Fairy Bowbells – Joanna Lumley
Sarah the Cook – Nigella Lawson
4. Aladdin Goes Pop: Pop stars from Cliff Richard to Cilla Black once graced pantos – perhaps we could revive the tradition with a celebrity pop version with some of these stars.
Aladdin – Justin Bieber or (if searching a younger demographic) Charlie Puth
Widow Twankey– Elton John
Wishee Washee – Zayn Malik
Princess Jasmine – Ariana Grande
Genie of the Lamp – Geri Halliwell
Genie of the Ring – Vanilla Ice
5. Panto at the Pinter: Characters loosely based on the characters they’ve played/are going to play.
Sleeping Beauty – Tamsin Greig
Silly Billy from Dick Whittington – Lee Evans
Abanazar – Antony Sher
The Genie of the Lamp – Russell Tovey
One final thought: Could Rob Icke follow his Almeida Wild Duck by directing Mother Goose?