When asked what the most culturally and/or socially relevant genre of theatre is, few people would think to respond with ‘pantomime’ – but this Christmas staple is by far the most successful and ubiquitous form of theatre in the United Kingdom, and it’s only growing more popular. The 2019 season has seen the genre’s highest turnover so far at over £60m, and the season isn’t even over yet. To the theatre critic, pantomime might come across as cheap and amateurish, but that’s hardly a reason to imply that it’s irrelevant. It’s pantomime’s very accessibility that makes it a fascinating opportunity to involve kids in theatre and engage wider audiences in an experience that might otherwise be unacceptably subversive.
It’s crucial to remember that pantomime, for many children, is their first ever experience of theatre – indeed, for many people, going to the pantomime as a child is their only experience of theatre. And kids love it! What makes pantomime so exciting for kids is its combination of the familiar (pop songs, familiar fairy tales, celebrities) and the ‘strange’ (men playing women and vice versa, incomprehensible jokes that the adults all seem to find funny for some reason, an actual live theatre performance!) The audience participation aspect of pantomime encourages children to engage with the show and effectively demonstrates to them the potential of live performance. Here you can interact with the story very differently to the way in which you engage with a TV show or film – if you’re very lucky, you might even be invited up on stage at the end. If you’re a child, the concept of screaming ‘It’s behind you!’ to the oblivious old dame is the height of comedy. It’s not high art, but there’s no reason why it should be – its primary audience is children, and if it doesn’t prioritize their entertainment, then something has gone wrong. Sending a child to (what they perceive as) a boring, overlong and pretentious production is a sure-fire way to put them off theatre for a long time. Of course, we shouldn’t settle for a situation where many children never have the opportunity to experience theatre beyond pantomime – but that’s the fault of chronic underfunding in the arts. And the experience of attending an exciting and engaging pantomime at Christmas time can potentially encourage a much deeper interest in the world of theatre and live performance.
Pantomime’s near-ubiquitous popularity also renders it a crucial source of income for many smaller theatres. In some cases, the ticket sales from the yearly pantomime alone can fund its entire repertoire for the following year – allowing them to take risks and put on important but less commercially-friendly shows, supporting local creatives and bringing more artistic theatre to people who would otherwise have to travel to big cities. The pantomime itself is also often a great opportunity to give local actors and creatives experience in working on a big show. This includes the children’s chorus, many of whom will be performing on stage for the first time in their lives. Pantomime’s enduring popularity arguably allows it to help sustain the entire British theatre industry, both by providing an economic bedrock and by introducing theatre to the audiences of tomorrow.
That said, pantomime is important as a genre in and of itself; it doesn’t just exist simply to support ‘real’, high theatre. It’s important to remember that pantomime has its roots in a subversive tradition. Gender-swapped casting is all but prescribed for many characters, allowing audiences to enjoy subversive and disruptive presentations whilst still being couched in the safety of ‘family-friendly Christmas entertainment’. This was even more revolutionary in Victorian times, the birthplace of the modern pantomime. The concept of the principal boy being played by a woman was not simply a case of gender subversion – it also allowed Victorian audiences to get a cheeky glimpse of the actresses’ shapely legs in breeches rather than covered by a long skirt.
Of course, pantomime has existed for over two centuries now, and has evolved little for most of them. What was once subversive can in some cases become positively conservative. Often this is highly dependent on the quality of the individual pantomime. The old dame, in the hands of a talented actor and writer, can become a delightful opportunity to relish in the aesthetics and comedy of high camp – or, in less capable hands, she can become a disappointing transphobic archetype. The ‘comedy’ becomes the old dame’s body – hilarious because it is that of a man – rather than her physical comedy and wordplay. Even the best-quality pantomimes rarely stray from tradition despite the interesting gender dynamics of the actors in pantomime; the panto ‘canon’ is limited to a stock selection of traditional fairy tales almost always revolving around a heterosexual love story.
However, the rules of pantomime, though generally upheld, are not set in stone. This year’s production of Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith, for example, saw Cinderella’s ‘ugly’ stepsister fall in love with a female Buttons, and the show has received rave reviews. The nature of pantomime’s gleeful subversiveness means that radical rule changes are more likely to be accepted than anyone trying to pull the genre towards a more conservative status quo – particularly because pantomime as a genre has a long tradition of poking fun at the status quo. Every year, right back to its origins in Victorian times, pantos have been updated with topical, often politically-charged jokes. While Bobby Davro cracking jokes at Prince Andrew’s expense in Woking is hardly going to set the world on fire, it’s still an example of speaking truth to power. Good pantomime revels in taking shots at the establishment. It’s no coincidence that many of the classic pantomime tales – Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington, and so on – are stories of plucky, Picaresque heroes making their way in the world pitted against authoritarian baddies. They reach the upper echelons of society in the end, but do so through their morality and pluck, whilst the villains are deservedly toppled from their position of power.
Some pantomimes, of course, still rely on lazy and reactionary humour; characters insulting other characters or the audience by implying that they’re from the ‘scummy’ neighbourhood of wherever the show is being performed is a particularly common trope. But not all pantomimes are created equal, and to denounce the entire genre because of the laziness of a few writers is nonsensical. When pantomime gets it right, it really gets it right, and it’s a genuine celebration of the subversive and radical that nevertheless still manages to successfully engage wide audiences. It’s a genre that we should feel deeply privileged to have.