Often, when I go to the theatre with Great Aunt Cecily, the first thing she says when the curtain comes down is: “It was excellent, but not as good as the revival of the same play I saw in 1948.” She even said this about Andrew Scott’s Hamlet. As George Orwell observed in Coming Up for Air, “before the war and especially before the Boer War, it was summer all year round.” That’s true for Aunt Cecily, and it’s true for many of us theatregoers.
When it comes to theatre, memory is burnished. With a few nightmarish exceptions that I’d like to excise but can’t—The Fields of Ambrosia; Peter Pan -El Musical, and Menopause the Musical—the shows that live on in my mind are the ones I love, and they often get better and better over time. In my mind’s eye, the production of Alice in Wonderland I saw age seven was like a night at the Royal Opera House and Epidaurus with design by Tom Piper and Es Devlin all rolled into one. And it had a supporting cast of live flamingos. Since it took place in my local church hall that is all highly improbable; it’s more likely it has telescoped—like Alice herself-- in my mind.
Panto is one of those artforms (and yes, it is an artform, one of theatre’s greatest, and only the terminally high-minded would disagree) that is particularly prone to nostalgia because many of us see at least one panto in childhood either with school or family. It is event theatre with a capital E.
But like all great theatre, pantomimes change over time, and that’s what keeps the art-form alive. I once read an editorial in the Times from the mid 19th century which thundered that traditional pantomime was being ruined because of all those upstart music hall stars. Some people would like to set all theatre in aspic so it can never change.
But change is in panto’s DNA. The mixture of clowning, enchantment, cross-dressing, transformation, sequins, music and high drama changes to suit different audiences in different eras and in living in different places. A panto in Hammersmith is not the same as one in Hackney. Panto is dullest when it most generic. A great panto is as clever and layered a piece of new writing as any play that premieres at the Royal Court.
There’s also the very good argument that pantomime is the one truly democratic form of indoor theatre that there is, because attendance is spread across all demographics.
So, I think we should cheer panto on, particularly in this difficult year when theatres will miss the financial boost it brings, and audiences will miss the chance to gather together and have a riotous time. One of the most joyous sounds in the world is the entire audience in full voice at the Hackney Empire. The child who has not experienced a great pantomime is a deprived child.
There will be some online pantos this year (check out Nottingham Playhouse and the Belgrade in Coventry in the Streamdoor listings, but there are others to suit all tastes) and I’m going to down a small sherry, open a bag of twiglets and give some of them a try. Maybe even Great Aunt Cecily will admit she’s having as good a time as she had at Birmingham Hippodrome in 1953. After all, even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.
Cover photo: Nottingham Playhouse's 2019 pantomime, Sleeping Beauty. Credit: Pamela Raith