Has the Christmas pantomime had its day?
Oh no it hasn't! Despite cross-dressing dames getting a drubbing this week, pantomime is going strong, with rap, rock'n'roll and rudeness all playing their part
Panto is usually as predictable as finding that unwanted satsuma in your Christmas stocking: familiar gags will be retold using former soap stars in tawdry outfits, while the audience boos on cue.
But now unexpected reworkings of the original format are thriving around the country. Panto 2.0, if you will. The casting is evolving, too. This week it was revealed that productions are doing away with the pantomime dame, as well as the "principal boy", usually played by a woman. Many have lamented the death of Widow Twankey et al, especially as these are traditions that date back to the early 19th century (this week it was even revealed that the Queen had portrayed Prince Charming in a 1941 performance of Cinderella at Windsor Castle.)
Pantomime is big business these days, having proved itself to be a blooming art form in austerity Britain. Last year, the largest panto producer, Qdos, raked in more than £25m, while First Family Entertainment, the country's second largest, enjoyed sales up 15 per cent from the previous year.
Among the most popular pantos-with-a-twist is the rock'n'roll panto. Across the UK you'll find everything from Dick Whittington to Jack and the Beanstalk retold with the much-loved characters brandishing guitars and saxophones while blaring out hits such as "You Really Got Me" and "Tainted Love".
"I like to think you get the best bits of pantomime without the boring bits," says Peter Rowe, who has written a number of the adaptations, and is directing the rock'n'roll version of Beauty and the Beast at the Clwyd Theatre Cymru in Flintshire, Wales. "You get about 20 rock and soul songs woven into the story to help it along, so the experience is a cross between a really good pantomime and a covers-band gig. It appeals to people right across the age range. Even teenagers and twentysomethings, who I think get a really raw deal when it comes to theatre at Christmas, have a good time with it."
Some of those involved point to the popularity of programmes such as The X Factor to explain the format's success. "Those sorts of television shows are huge and I think it's why people have embraced it. We've moved it into the 21st century," explains Derrick Gask, producer at the Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, who this year is putting on a rock'n'roll production of Sleeping Beauty. "This is why panto survives. It's always paralleled what's been going on, it passes social comment, and it follows trends."
Elsewhere, you'll find ice skating panto (Snow White on Ice at the Guildford Spectrum) and urban versions of the original, such as Syn-da-Rilla in Enfield Town (look out for DJ Prinz Charmin'). Meanwhile, gay panto continues to thrive (try The Bitches of Oz in Clapham), as well as adult interpretations (definitely leave the kids at home for Dick Comes Again: Bigger, Longer Harder! at the Leicester Square theatre).
The technology involved is becoming more sophisticated too, and at a number of performances, such as Robin Hood at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, you'll be supplied with 3D glasses for the show. We're a long way from pantomime's roots in commedia dell'arte and Georgian theatre now.
While these variations are all well and good, there are rules that should be remembered when it comes to panto. Every year, Hackney Empire in east London puts on a more typical (and much lauded) show. "I don't forget the tradition," says Susie McKenna, the writer and director of this year's panto, Puss in Boots. "Panto is a craft. You've got to adhere to certain things. The baddies enter the stage on the left, the goodies right, for example. But as long as you have the bedrock, you can take the audience anywhere. That's the joy of panto."
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