Yes, it’s that time of year. Last week I saw my first two 2016 pantomimes – Dick Whittington at the Marlowe Theatre (Evolution Pantomimes) and Sleeping Beauty at Hackney Empire. The former is a real humdinger of a show, managing to present all the standard routines with remarkable freshness which immediately sets a standard for the rest of the rest of the season as far as I’m concerned. And you can always rely on Susie McKenna and her team to come up with something different at Hackney Empire and this year’s show is as sparky as ever.
I always tell people that I’m not a committed panto fan. Even as a child I used to sit there squirming and wishing they’d stop messing about and get on with the story. As an adult – who has seen and reviewed hundreds (and hundreds) of pantomimes in the last twenty years – of course I see it differently. It’s traditional and I’m all for that. It also gives me real pleasure to see whole families out together and having a good time at the theatre, possibly for the only time in the year. Paul Hendy of Evolution Pantomimes told me recently that on one occasion he spotted what seemed to be a five generation family in one of his audiences – lump in the throat stuff. Moreover for many children it’s the first experience of live theatre and, of course, we all hope that it hooks them so that they want more.
The other important – oft overlooked – thing about pantomime is its huge potential for the provision of lots of jobs especially for young performers. Paul Hendy has a team of eight professional dancers at Canterbury, all of them young. Susie McKenna has seven. And as I write there are new grads playing Cinderella, Snow White, Princess Jasmine – or Prince Charming, Jack or Dick – all over the country. They are cutting their professional teeth, earning money in what for many is the first paid job, and – most importantly of all – learning lots from the big names and seasoned theatre people they are working alongside.
For some venues and companies too, a strong sell-out panto for a few weeks in the winter makes enough money to offset some of the losses during the rest of the year.
So all in all, panto is a Very Good Thing whichever way you look at it. In fact it’s a very valuable strand in the totality of British live theatre. Just as well then, as I have eight more to see between now and Christmas along with 10 or so other shows, many of them aimed at children. And the best part of it all, as I dash about from place to place fighting Christmas show fatigue? Seeing children totally immersed and enjoying themselves. In fact, come to think of it, I think that’s the best thing about Christmas altogether.