With an abundance of men playing female characters, festive shows are in danger of squeezing out roles for women. Simon Sladen argues that with a little imagination venues can bring equality to seasonal blockbusters
When the London Palladium’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears revealed its first set of stars earlier this year, Twitter erupted: “Any women in this?” asked one. “Could you not find one woman to list on the poster?” added another. A third asked: “Where is Goldilocks?”
While we now know the title role will be played by Sophie Isaacs with Janine Duvitski as Mummy Bear and Lauren Stroud as Baby Bear, it seems significant that the only women in the principal cast were the last to be announced and that all three sit in a row together at the bottom of the panto’s poster – beneath their six male counterparts. This was – to be fair – in contrast to the 2018 Palladium panto for which Dawn French was given joint top billing alongside Julian Clary.
In the year of International Women’s Day’s #balanceforbetter campaign, Tonic Theatre’s Casting Toolkit and producing houses committing to a 50:50 gender balance for writers, performers and directors, it seems strange that pantomime appears to be moving backwards.
I conducted a survey of this season’s posters, which reveals that between commercial producers Qdos Entertainment, UK Productions, Paul Holman Associates, Evolution Productions, Imagine Theatre and Jordan Productions, women account for 29% of performers depicted and headline 33% of shows. Across market-leader Qdos Entertainment’s 32 posters, 10 feature no women at all, even for female-led narratives such as Cinderella (New Theatre, Cardiff; Nottingham Theatre Royal; Theatre Royal, Plymouth), Sleeping Beauty (Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent) and Goldilocks and the Three Bears (King’s Theatre, Edinburgh).
While the poster is only a shop window to the pantomime itself, it plays an important role in the show’s advertising with artwork appearing in newspapers, on train turnstile gates, billboards and across social media.
In recent years, two casting practices have contributed to fewer roles for women: the drag villain and male immortal. With cross-dressed wicked stepmothers, fairy godbrothers and men playing ugly sisters, Cinderella may be the only character in that title requiring an actress. But with these two stock roles growing in popularity, is there traffic the other way?
As female principal boys disappear ever more into obscurity, some creative teams are turning their attention to other characters. The Lyric Hammersmith, Macrobert, Stirling, and Harrogate Theatre have all embraced female Jacks in recent years with Basildon’s Towngate Theatre creating Aunty Banazar for resident villain Sophie Ladds.
Vikki Stone’s cross-dressed baddie appears this year at the Deco in Northampton, having been seen at the Lyric Hammersmith and Worthing Pavilion, while in Consett, Leah Bell returns in her usual dame role, as well as writing, directing and producing. Other venues such as York Theatre Royal and Nottingham Playhouse have resident casts that champion performers such as Suzy Cooper and Rebecca Little year after year.
But resident female performers are rare. Substantial roles for fairies, spirits, mayoresses and empresses are few and far between after graduating from principal girl. Most frequently, the male comic and dame return season after season due to the characters’ relationship with the audience and the fact the performers often write and direct too.
It is simply untrue that audiences won’t accept women as dames, nor that they can’t be funny or ‘take a pie’
It is a fallacy that dames must be ‘blokes in frocks’. Nellie Wallace achieved great success as a dame, with other famous names including Dora Bryan, Mollie Sugden and Una McLean – not forgetting Elaine C Smith, who appears as Dame Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk this year at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow.
It is simply untrue that audiences won’t accept women in these roles, nor that they can’t be funny or ‘take a pie’.
French headlining the Palladium last year as Wicked Queen Dragonella proved this, and in 2019 Qdos has cast Jo Brand and Doon Mackichan as comedy villains, with other talent appearing in the dame-like guise of nursemaid including Doreen Tipton, Sherrie Hewson and Leah MacRae.
This comedic role can also be seen in the growing number of female ‘sisters’ in Cinderella, this season employed at Norwich Theatre Royal, the Hexagon, Reading, His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, and Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre. Often titled ‘wicked’ rather than ‘ugly’, and sometimes chosen due to the resident dame playing fairy godmother or evil stepmother, this opportunity increases the female-to-male cast ratio immensely.
One of the last bastions for female performers to conquer is the pantomime comic. While wee Jimmy Krankie was a great success for Janette Tough, this was still in essence a cross-dressed role. So, where are all the comedy female siblings and sidekicks? Some are relegated to anthropomorphic walking and talking cows, cats, skunks and pigs, and some become love-interests for the comic.
Jane Deane, a talented character actor with circus skills, is one of few female performers ever to have played the stock comic role. She told me that it boils down to having a director, producer or theatre manager who’s willing to take a risk. “Panto needs to shake itself up,” she says. “The solution is very simple: just change the gender.”
This is exactly what Little Wolf Entertainment did for its upcoming production of Jack and the Beanstalk at Loughbourgh Town Hall, featuring Ella-Jane Thomas as Simple Simone. Producer Morgan Brind wanted to mix things up so it wasn’t “just the boys getting the laughs and the girls getting nice frocks”. He said: “We need to unpick and attack the things such as casual sexism that, mollusc-like, have attached themselves to heritage. It’s our duty.”
But if we’re still not seeing equality on our stages, what’s the reason behind it? Sarah Boden, producer at Imagine Theatre, believes it’s due to the lack of women in the industry. Producers like herself, Emily Wood and Daryl Back are few and far between, with men eclipsing women in the fields of scriptwriters, directors and designers. Citing childcare as one reason, Boden says: “Panto takes over our lives for six to nine months of the year. Managing our work and home lives really does take teamwork.” Both Boden and Wood share producing duties with their husbands.
Increasingly, representation is a no-brainer. That’s certainly what writer, director and performer Johnny McKnight thinks. After he broke new ground by featuring a gay relationship in 2018’s Mammy Goose, this year his all-female Cinderfella for the Tron Theatre, Glasgow inverts the usual narrative. In his adaptation, Cinderella seeks the business advice of Princess Charmaine complete with cross-dressed stepbrothers and cross-dressed disguises to gain entry to the Palace Ball. “There’s an abundance of female talent out there,” he said. “It’s criminal that they’re not being written for.”
It is also a chance for emerging practitioners to confront the issue head on. In Wendy’s Awfully Big Adventure at Theatre503, by Louise Beresford and Anna Spearpoint, younger audience members, particularly female, are encouraged “to create their own narratives and traditions in which they are silly and gross, sling pies and roll up their sleeves to slay the dragon”.
While no magic wand can be waved to solve the gender imbalance overnight, simple actions – such as greater representation on posters, embracing character gender swaps, increased female-to-male cross-dressing and encouraging more female creatives and producers – will go a long way. All that’s required is creative confidence.
Simon Sladen is senior curator of modern and contemporary performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London