Listen, I don’t want to be a Debbie-Downer here but I’m not the biggest fan of pantomimes. When I was younger I watched several on television and loved them, and when I was ten I was in a professional pantomime – see cute picture below:
In recent years, I’ve fallen out of love with pantomime, which is also known as “the time of year when soap actors and reality TV ‘stars’ crawl out of hibernation to sing pop songs, wear colourful costumes and make risque jokes to family audiences who have paid £50 a ticket”. Yes, I know this is harsh, but the extreme always makes an impression. There’s quite a few things I want to tackle in this post, so let’s split it up a bit to try and make sense of it all.
The Origins of Pantomime
Pantomime originates from England as early as the 16th century, basing itself around the stock characters of the Commedia Dell’Arte genre. These shows would often feature lovers eloping, pursued by the girl’s father and his comic servants, and end in a courtly masque. The performances often retold well-known Greek and Roman stories, and due to a legislation would be silent; using only dance and gestures to be told. Throughout the years, pantomime developed into being adaptations of European folk and fairy tales, and due to their slapstick nature and fast pace, became favourites of children (who in the 1800s, only visited the theatre at Christmas and sometimes Easter). The style used was known as a ‘harlequinade‘, which died out in performance in the 1930s, but many of its conventions preside in pantomimes today.
Casting: Gender and Age
One of the main conventions of panto is the casting. There is a very small cast, and in any of the stories, you can see these archetypal characters:
The protagonist. Either way, they’re played by a girl, whether that’s Cinderella or Jack (and the Beanstalk). They’ll have a love interest who’s usually a small part of the story (Prince Charming or Aladdin’s Jasmine, for instance) and is played by the ‘correct gender’ for the role. They’ll pine for each other and have a big wedding ceremony in the finale (sorry, spoilers). Then there’s the Dame, usually the protagonist’s mother, though they cane be glammed-up and be the villain, instead. The Dame is played by a middle-aged man in drag, and often has top billing. They have the most interaction with the audience, and are the main source of comic entertainment. In this group of people, there is often the sidekick, such as Buttons or Wishy-Washy, who may be a moral compass for the protagonist or there to create a comic twosome with the Dame.
The final two characters are the antithesis of each other. The Good Fairy character is often an older woman who is the protagonist’s guide helping them along and setting things right in the end, also acting as a narrator. They’re not always a fairy, they could be a Genie, too. Conventionally, they always enter from stage right, whilst the Villain of the show enters from stage left, as these were the places people thought marked Heaven and Hell on the stage. The Villain is the typical antagonist, such as Captain Hook, Abanazer, or the Wicked Stepmother, and they’re always thwarted in the end.
Though this seems all very well and traditional, these castings do seem outdated. In this day and age, it feels odd to be laughing at a man dressed up as a woman, especially in an age where drag is highly commended and respected as a high form of entertainment in its own right, with much thanks to shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race. Is it right to find it funny at someone dressing up as the opposite gender? Or should it be funny as it is satirical and not intended to be offended.
It can’t help but be noted, also, that the evil/ugly characters are older, with prime examples being the Wicked Stepmother and Ugly Stepsisters. These characters are often cast with older actors, whilst the protagonists the audience roots for are young and beautiful. Again, we may just be offended at every thing possible here, or there may just be a longing for these stereotypes to be banished as they’re not relevant at all anymore and are sending mixed messages about who ‘winners’ in life are.
The Star Casting
As said in my negative introduction, the cast are usually peppered in ‘celebrities’ to increase audience numbers and, I suppose, ticket prices, too. A lot of the time these are small stars, such as those from soap operas or reality television. However, large stars have graced the stages of pantomime, too. Ian Mckellen played Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s 2004 production of Aladdin, whilst today we have stage veterans Paul O’Grady and Julian Grady in the London Palladium’s production of Cinderella. However, having a star in your cast can hinder your production severely, making it more a showcase for them than having them embedded in the community spirit of the cast (as Michael Billington notes in this article). Having a star can be problematic; if audience members are only coming for the star, is there a point the production being there at all? Why couldn’t they have just done a concert?
The ‘star’ (I feel so awful using that word, ugh) has to throw themselves into the strange and cartoonish world of pantomime rather than sticking to their own persona – they are meant to be playing a character after all, even if the announcement they are Widow Twankey is in size 5 font under their size 50 name on the posters.
Casting ‘stars’, as it were, also sits uncomfortably with me, as I’ve spoken about previously. Does the production company think they are right for the role, or are they more concerned about box office revenue? Perhaps this is just the nature of pantomime and we should just face it.
I often feel like anyone could write a pantomime, as they all follow the same conventions, jokes, and musical numbers. Yet why do we still laugh, show after show, when we know what’s coming? There’ll be an opening number introducing us to the village the characters live in, a slapstick chase scene, a baking scene in which the Dame and her sidekick become covered in flour and eggs and so on.
Next, we’ll have the soppy song for the protagonist, swiftly followed by a chorus of “It’s behind you!”. There will possibly be a cow or horse played by two actors, a song in which the audience are required to “sing-off”, and lots of risque jokes the parents hope go over their children’s heads. Finally, there will be a transformation scene, everything wil be resolved, and a wedding along with a finale number which has so many sequined costumes you might just be blinded.
I’m not complaining, of course, every type of performance has its conventions – that’s why they fit into nice little genres. But doesn’t it all get a bit…boring? A bit cliche and childish? Of course it’s there to appease the children, but how have we gone years cracking the same jokes and re-using the same dance routine? It all feels so worn.
We can all agree that pantomimes are supposed to be cheesy and full of cliches – that’s what we love as a British audience. And don’t get me wrong, I LOVE cheese – doesn’t every musical theatre fan? I just don’t think I’m a fan of cheese made by a two-person cow, or adults jokes involving sex or Donald Trump in a kids’ show (though hopefully not in the same sentence…). In short, pantomime just feels outdated and the worst option to choose if you’re going to the theatre for Christmas when there’s so many other wonderful shows, Christmassy or not, to choose from.
But maybe I’m just being a snob…