What makes a good pantomime?  

An annual tradition or perhaps the first visit to the theatre, going to a Christmas show should be a truly memorable experience. Susan Elkin has some pointers.

No. It isn’t behind you. It’s all before you. As Ink Pellet goes to press the Christmas Show season is about to get underway. Teachers, teaching assistants, parents, grandparents et all are all gearing up to take parties, large or small, to theatres all over the country to see a pantomime, an adaptation of a children’s book or an original piece of theatre for young audiences. 

Last year I saw more Christmas shows than ever – about 25 – and they ranged from dramatisations of stories to classical music and ballet, lots of work for very young children and, of course, pantomimes. This season promises to be just as busy from Mother Goose at Marlowe Theatre Canterbury to Snow White at Chickenshed in North London, The Wizard of Oz at Chichester Festival Theatre, Sleeping Beauty at Nottingham Playhouse, Once Upon a Snowflake at Tower Theatre Folkestone and a whole lot more.

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. We should never forget either that for many, this is the first taste of live theatre, and there may be no more until next Christmas.

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 which I remember well from two years ago. 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 Ashby-Rock who runs the venue and played Dick, was slick and clever. And dirty jokes were conspicuous by their absence. My granddaughter, then aged 6 and at her very first pantomime, laughed until she rattled – and that is the finest possible indicator of success.

Second, what about the music? Well, if you can afford a live band you will almost always get a better show. 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, so I’m confident that this year’s Mother Goose will be a happy experience.

Good panto uses a wide range of music styles. Relentlessly re-working of recent hits is boring, unimaginative – and common. One hit after another is lazy and doesn’t make for anything memorable. 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 third-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. 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 out 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 a recent Aladdin at Assembly Hall in Tunbridge Wells

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.

Happy Christmas to seasonal theatre goers of all ages.  

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