This may be an obvious statement to some, but I am passionate about pantomime. I appeared in some as a young child, my first professional one was at the age of 16, then I played principal boy from the age of 19 for many years at Nottingham playhouse before embarking on my Hackney Empire adventure as performer and writer/director for 21 years. My passion was fuelled by the directors and artists who imparted their knowledge and love for the genre to me early in my career.
There are many reasons why I love it. Pantomime is one of the only art forms where four generations can watch and enjoy together and it’s often the first time children (and some adults) come to the theatre. So, the responsibility of making sure they have a great time and want to come back weighs heavy, but what an amazing challenge to have.
I love being able to write a script that needs layers to satisfy not only a wide age range, but also a wide demographic of the many cultures of our wonderful country. What better way than creating a piece with comedy, music, dance, old-fashioned theatrical wizardry and a story with heart that reflects the times we live in and even comments on our ever-changing morals.
Anyone working on a pantomime on stage or off will tell you it’s one of the hardest things they’ve ever done and not easy to get right. The short rehearsal and tech time compared with large-scale musicals, the performance schedule and the fact that, more than is usual for other genres, panto performers must play a show at least three different ways to accommodate the range of audience, from school shows to family shows and a house full of work Christmas parties.
Let’s not forget the financial contribution to theatre our pantomimes make. For theatres across the land, a successful panto boosts their income considerably, whether that’s to enhance a subsidy, help them take risks elsewhere in the programme or even keep the doors open for the rest of the year.
So why is it not regarded as highly as other art forms? Certainly, there can be bad pantos, but I’m just as horrified at bad Shakespeare, and that is usually longer. I don’t think the 1980s helped when too many non-performers were employed to put bums on seats. While panto across the country still relies on names, mostly standards have gone back up with amazing work. The simple reason is snobbery.
Pantomime actors have to be fearless, with enough energy to keep the national grid going and impeccable timing. Most need to sing and dance, while funny bones for dames, baddies and the kids’ comedian are essential. Not everyone can do it and even the most seasoned performers will tell you their first time is a revelation and terrifying.
So let’s give credit where credit is due, and all hail the panto performers, writers, creatives, tech teams, front of house and producers who work tirelessly to entertain us at Christmas.
Susie McKenna is a freelance director, writer and actor, who is writing and directing this year’s Hackney Empire pantomime Dick Whittington and His Cat