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So what makes a good pantomime?

I’ve seen more Christmas  shows than ever this year – about 25 at the last count and they range from dramatisations of stories to classical music and ballet, lots of work for very young children and, of course, pantomimes.

I wonder how many pantos I’ve seen in the twenty years or so that I’ve been reviewing? Three hundred perhaps – maybe more. I’ve certainly enjoyed/sat through (delete as applicable) enough to have learned a great deal about the form and to have come to some critical conclusions.

The first is that panto is for children. Yes, it’s “family entertainment” but it’s the children who should come first every time. After all the classic panto form of audience address is “Hello boys and girls” and I don’t think that’s intended to be a patronising throwaway to accompanying grandparents.

Now, children – for the most part don’t find filth and innuendo funny even if they understand it. Actually, neither do I if it’s there simply because it’s smutty. A joke has to be really clever to work for me and clichéd  sex/lavatorial gags rarely are. Filth for its own sake is a turn off.

A warm welcome then to Dick Whittington in the Paul Robeson Theatre at  Arts Centre Hounslow this year. It’s a funny little place in desperate need of TLC – the seats are literally crumbling away and “low tech” is a polite word for the equipment. Nonetheless  the  low budget show, directed by Jonathan Ashy-Rock who runs the venue and plays Dick, is slick and clever. And dirty jokes are conspicuous by their absence. My six year old granddaughter, at her very first pantomime, laughed until she rattled – and that is the finest possible indicator of success.

Aladdin at Tunbridge Wells (Martin Dodd for UK Productions) is also clean as a whistle and the show at Marlowe Theatre Canterbury tends to be the standard against which I measure all others. This year’s Peter Pan is a very fine show – well up to standard with a lot of imagination and freshness and very little innuendo.

Second, what about the music? Well, if you can afford a live band you will almost always get a better show. This year Tim Hammond’s three piece band does a fine job in Cinderella at Orchard Theatre Dartford for instance. So does Sean Green for Sleeping Beauty at Central Hall Theatre Chatham (Jordan Production). Chris Wong, MD at Canterbury has been working with Paul Hammond, the producer and the two cast regulars, Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollet for years and it shows.

Good panto uses a wide range of music styles. Relentlessly re-working of recent hits is boring, unimaginative – and common. Churchill Theatre Bromley’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (played by full sized actors – another gripe) is a case in point this year – one hit after another. Ideally you get old songs from earlier in the twentieth century, a bit of music hall, some folk, circus music, maybe classical and songs very familiar to children such as Nelly the Elephant or Yellow Submarine. The whole point of panto is that it’s a crazy mish mash. It isn’t meant to be a second rate pop concert.

Third, pantomime is a form of musical theatre, telling a story. It isn’t a variety show. Yes, I know that if you’ve got, say, a champion ice skater or a magician in the cast it makes sense to exploit his or her talents but it should be grafted in not bolted on. The Tunbridge Wells Aladdin has Jess Robinson in the cast as the Fairy of the Ring. She is a very talented mimic and there’s plenty of that in the show but only as an incidental when she’s on stage as part of the story telling. Pantomime should never be just a series of clever acts.

Fourth, even children get tired of hearing the same old jokes. And it’s lazy scripting to keep churning out the same ones year after year. It would be a wonderful treat, for instance, to see a kitchen slosh scene which came up with something funnier than the weary old currants/rabbit dropping gag. And does anyone find the ubiquitous Cinderella joke about cleaning the fluff our of the ugly sisters’ navels funny any more? That is why I sit up and take notice when I hear something new (to me, anyway) and genuinely funny the first time you hear it, such as the line about Darth Vader’s brother Taxi Vader in this year’s Tunbridge Wells Aladdin

Fifth, despite everything I’ve said, if panto is to work it has to operate within a traditional framework. There has to be a Dame and a clown sparking off each other, a slosh scene, a ghost scene, goodies, baddies, rhyming couplets and lots of well choreographed dancing – among other things. The trick is to inject freshness into the formula. If only every producer understood that.

Image: Peter Pan cast, Marlowe Theatre, 2017

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Susan Elkin
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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