Pantomime is quintessentially British and a traditional part of the festivities in theatres across the land. The genre likely developed from sixteenth century Italian Commedia dell’arte and later from French performing troupes touring Britain. Adaptations of Commedia characters became familiar in seventeenth century Britain and led to the development of the English harlequinade, featuring Harlequin, Columbine, Clown and Pierrot.
Pantomime existed in other forms many centuries earlier. In Ancient Greece, pantomime involved a group who ‘imitates all’ accompanied by singing and instrumental music. Similar shows were seen in Roman times.
In Britain during the Middle Ages, the Mummers Play was a traditional form of folk entertainment and contained many of the key ingredients of pantomime: coarse humour, stage fights, fantasy creatures with animal heads and gender role reversal. Father Christmas would also make an appearance. These medieval midwinter plays were originally pre-Christian fertility rites.
By the 1800s, European fairytales and nursery rhymes were interwoven with harlequinades. There were acrobatic elements to pantomime and increasing amounts of slapstick. Mime had long been crucial for foreign troupes in Britain, but English-speaking productions emerged through the decades. Christmas, New Year and Easter became the most popular times to stage and witness these shows. The harlequinade element would be phased out through the century until it disappeared altogether by 1940, leaving us with the kind of pantomime we would recognise today.
Audience participation is an essential feature of modern pantos, be it sing-a-longs or cries of “he’s behind you” to unsuspecting characters on stage. There is also the essential character-audience banter: “Oh yes it is! Oh no it isn’t!”
And the characters no self-respecting pantomime can be without: Principal boy/girl; Pantomime Dame; Villain; Good Fairy; Comic lead and Pantomime horse.
Social distancing measures and Covid-19 will affect the usual pantomime season, but for details on pantomimes being staged across the UK when normal service resumes you can visit bigpantoguide.co.uk, pantomime.com and its-behind-you.com.
Did you know…Joseph Grimaldi was the most famous pantomime clown and he made his first appearance in London in 1800? His funny female characters also paved the way for the Pantomime Dame, whose later development sprang from the music halls of the early Victorian era.
Here are the most popular pantomimes performed today and through the last century (Oh no they’re not!…Oh yes they are!):
1 – Cinderella
2 – Jack and the Beanstalk
3 – Aladdin
4 – Sleeping Beauty
5 – Snow White and the Seven Dwarves
6 – Peter Pan
7 – Dick Whittington
8 – Mother Goose
9 – Beauty and the Beast
10 – Puss in Boots
11 – Robin Hood & The Babes in the Wood
12 – The Snow Queen
13 – The Wizard of Oz
14 – Pinocchio
15 – Little Red Riding Hood
16 – Hansel and Gretel
17 – Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves
18 – Robinson Crusoe
19 – Humpty Dumpty
20 – Goody Two Shoes
Did you know…in 1999 there were 52 productions of Cinderella in the UK? In 2013 that was down to 22 – but it was still the most popular pantomime around. That remains the case.
The Covid Damage
Stage & theatre, like many industries, has taken a massive hit with the outbreak of coronavirus. Many are hoping it isn’t a fatal blow. As social distancing measures continue to be employed across the UK, to some degree or other, it seems an increasingly unlikely hope that Christmas shows will be available in any kind of abundance. In June, Leicester Curve called off it’s festive production of “The Wizard of Oz” until 2021. Pantomime season has been hit hard. The Radio City Spectacular in New York City has been cancelled for the first time in its history.
Before Social Distancing
There is no prize for guessing the most popular festive theatrical show across the country under normal circumstances: “A Christmas Carol”. Be it in the form of a play or the musical “Scrooge”, and of course in normal times, a production would be staged at Christmastime in a theatre not too far from you. Another popular stage musical in recent years has been the revival of “White Christmas”, with a glorious collection of songs from the irrepressible Irving Berlin.
“The Nutcracker” has been another festive staple for ballet and Tchaikovsky lovers alike here in the UK. In the United States, this ballet is responsible for generating something like 40 percent of the annual income for major American ballet companies. If you have never attended the ballet before but would like to, this is a great place to start. Maybe make this your must-see theatre event of Christmas 2021.
The stage version of the hugely popular animation “The Snowman” has been taking its rightful place in the panoply of British Christmas theatre offerings. “The Snowman” is an enduring festive tradition created by the Peacock Theatre, with the show now having run for more than two decades. It will hopefully continue to take flight up and down the land when social distancing and other restrictions allow.
Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Life
Sir Paul McCartney has been working on a stage musical adaptation of the classic Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He was just four when the film was released in 1946. The new musical version was set for its opening night late in 2020, but that was before the pandemic.
“It’s A Wonderful Life is my favourite film,” said the Tony Award-winning producer Bill Kenwright. “It has absolutely everything – comedy, pathos and a rare humanity which has touched generation after generation. To give it a life on the stage is an immense privilege in itself, but to do with Paul McCartney is off the scale. Paul’s wit, emotional honesty and melodic brilliance brings a whole new depth and breadth to the classic tale. I feel as if an angel must be looking after me.” There was a musical adaptation of Frank Capra’s film in the US in 1986, later to be revived but to little acclaim.
Radio City Splendour
If you should be lucky enough to find yourself in New York in the run up to Christmas (one year in the future, obviously not 2020), we implore you to buy tickets for “The Radio City Christmas Spectacular” starring the fabulous Radio City Rockettes. It’s a Big Apple tradition delivered with Hollywood style and a delight for kids, young and old. Shows ordinarily begin in November at the historic Radio City Music Hall. When that time to visit comes along, check out rockettes.com. New York has taken a tragic blow this year, alongside many other major cities and towns. But this amazingly resilient and wonderful city has rebounded before and will again. The Radio City Spectacular may have been cancelled for 2020, but it will return in all its glitzy glory.