It’s Behind You! Pantomime is quintessentially British and a traditional part of the festivities in theatres across the land, although it likely developed from 16th century Italian Commedia dell’arte and later from French performing troupes touring Britain. Adaptations of Commedia characters became familiar in 17th 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.
Joseph Grimaldi was the most famous pantomime clown, who 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.
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.
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.
There is no prize for guessing the most popular festive theatrical show across the country: “A Christmas Carol”. Be it in the form of a play or the musical “Scrooge”, a production will be staged at Christmastime in a theatre not too far from you. Another popular stage musical is “White Christmas”, with a glorious collection of songs from the irrepressible Irving Berlin.
“The Nutcracker” is 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.
The stage version of the hugely popular animation “The Snowman” is now 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 in its 21st year and taking flight this year up and down the land.
Radio City Splendour
If you should be lucky enough to find yourself in New York in the run up to Christmas, 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 of all ages. Shows begin in November at the historic Radio City Music Hall. Check out rockettes.com.
Tickets have been on sale from March 9th 2018 for December’s supersized version of West End musical “Elf”. The festive extravaganza, based on the hit Will Ferrell movie, will play three major arenas this Christmas: Cardiff Motorpoint Arena, Birmingham Genting Arena and Nottingham Motorpoint Arena. David Essex and Martine McCutcheon lead the cast of around 70 performers.
Dawn French is Wicked in Panto
National treasure Dawn French is turning wicked for panto season this Christmas as “Snow White” comes to the London Palladium. Dawn, award-winning comedian, writer and actress, plays the Wicked Queen in a stellar cast that also includes Julian Clary as The Man in the Mirror, Nigel Havers and Gary Wilmot, as well as “Strictly Come Dancing” pair Vincent & Flavia. This production is created by the same team behind last year’s Olivier Award winning “Dick Whittington” and runs from December 8, 2018 to January 13, 2019. See further down the page for more pantomime choices.
The Snowman Returns
“The Snowman”, Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s hugely successful live stage adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ enchanting children’s book, makes another return to the Peacock Theatre in London this Christmas. Now firmly embedded as one of London’s most charming Christmas traditions, this production makes use of a live orchestra, sweet singing and clever choreography, including the magical “Walking in the Air” sequence. This isn’t a carbon copy of the TV animation story because in this version The Snowman and James fly through the night sky in a bid to escape the evil Jack Frost, before attending a party Father Christmas, more snowmen and a few amusing penguins. Now how did those penguins get to the North Pole? The show runs from November 22, 2018 to January 6, 2019. For ticket information go to london-theatreland.co.uk.
English National Ballet’s Nutcracker
You can witness the magic of “The Nutcracker” in London this Christmas courtesy of the magnificent English National Ballet. Tchaikovsky’s score is performed at the London Coliseum by English National Opera’s orchestra. Featuring an extraordinary cast of more than a hundred world class dancers and musicians, the choreography, score and sets of this quintessential Christmas ballet will transport you. Shows will be staged from December 13th to 30th, 2018. Check ticket details at fromtheboxoffice.com.
Peter Pan Flies in for Christmas
J.M. Barrie’s beloved children’s tale “Peter Pan” is brought to life on the London stage by Jonathan O’Boyle in this Park Theatre production, which runs throughout the 2018 festive season. It is a magical tale, perfect for Christmastime – and you can book tickets now. First published in 1904, the story features the Darling siblings, who are visited by Peter Pan and follow him on a journey to Neverland. The show runs from December 5, 2018 to January 5, 2019. Check ticket details at parktheatre.co.uk.
Bristol Old Vic continues its seasonal tradition of imaginative new versions of classic stories with a new adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” this year. Witness some of the author’s greatest creations brought to life in true Bristol Old Vic style from November 29th 2018 to January 13th 2019. There’s more at visitbristol.co.uk.
Father Brown as Dr Dolittle
Father Brown’s Mark Williams stars in a stage production of “Doctor Dolittle” at The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre in Salford this Christmas. Former Coronation Street actors Brian Capron and Vicky Entwistle also feature in a musical production that runs from December 11th 2018 to January 5th 2019.
Also at The Lowry this festive season, “Little Gift” is staged at The Aldridge Studio. Told with wonderful puppetry, original music and a lot of heart, “Little Gift” is a new story from award-winning M6 Theatre and Andy Manley. It starts on December 19th and runs until New Year’s Eve. There are more details at the lowry.com.
2018 Pantomime Selection
Aberdeen: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (Dec 1 – Jan 6) – Lee Mead stars at His Majesty’s Theatre in the enchanting “Snow White”. Alan McHugh and Jordan Young return.
Bath: “Peter Pan” (Dec 13 – Jan 13) – The cast at Bath’s Theatre Royal includes Jon Monie as Smee.
Belfast: “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Dec 1 – Jan 13) – May McFettridge celebrates a 29th consecutive year in pantomime at the Grand Opera House, this time in “Jack and the Beanstalk”.
Birmingham: “Peter Pan” (Dec 19 – Jan 27) – The Hippodrome’s tradition appears to be start late but run well into the New Year. Matt Slack is again among this year’s cast as Smee.
Bradford: “Aladdin” (Dec 8 – Jan 20) – Billy Pearce, back in Bradford once more, Blue’s Simon Webbe and panto perennial Christopher Biggins lead the fun at the Alhambra Theatre.
Bristol: “Cinderella” (Dec 8 – Jan 6) – Headline acts in Bristol this year are Brian Conley and Gok Wan. Will they help Cinders get to the ball?
Cardiff: “Beauty and the Beast” (Dec 8 – Jan 13) – Not one of the more typical pantomime stories, but Disney’s film versions have taken “Beauty and the Beast” to fresh heights of popularity.
Edinburgh: “Beauty and the Beast” (Dec 1 – Jan 20) – Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Scott, the now traditional trio at this venue, return for panto duty at the King’s Theatre in Scotland’s capital.
Glasgow: “Aladdin” (Dec 1 – Jan 6) – Scottish panto queen Elaine C. Smith is back at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre for a run in “Aladdin”.
Leeds: “Beauty and the Beast” (Nov 23 – Dec 31) – Carriageworks Theatre has gone down the “Beauty and the Beast” route this festive season.
Liverpool: “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Dec 14 – Jan 6) – The Liverpool Empire hosts Strictly Come Dancing judge Shirley Ballas in her big time panto debut in her home area of Merseyside.
Llandudno: “Cinderella” (Dec 8 – Dec 30) – It’s ugly sisters, Buttons and Cinders for this Welsh town in 2018.
London: “Snow White” (Dec 8 – Jan 13) – Another star-spangled cast at the London Palladium, led by wicked stepmother Dawn French. Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot and Strictly’s Vincent & Flavia also star.
Manchester: “Cinderella” (Dec 8 – 30) – This year’s Opera House panto sees Cinderella find her Prince Charming, in spite of the best efforts of the ugly sisters.
Milton Keynes: “Robin Hood” (Dec 8 – Jan 13) – The Milton Keynes Theatre production stars Eastenders actor Shane Richie in a seldom seen production of “Robin Hood”.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (Nov 27 – Jan 20) – The Theatre Royal stages this rarely featured production of Goldilocks, once again starring northeast panto mainstays Clive Webb, Danny Adams and Chris Hayward.
Nottingham: “Peter Pan” (Dec 8 – Jan 13) – Peter Pan flies into an adventure with the Darlings at the Theatre Royal.
Plymouth: “Dick Whittington” (Dec 14 – Jan 12) – Audiences at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal can see Dick Whittington and his trusty cat embark on a festive journey of fortune to London, with John Partridge and Samantha Womack leading the cast.
Portsmouth: “Cinderella” (Dec 11 – Jan 6) – The Kings Theatre stages the rags to riches story for the ages.
Richmond, London: “Peter Pan” (Dec 8 – Jan 13) – The Richmond Theatre sees J.M. Barrie’s famous story given a pantomime treatment.
Sheffield: “Peter Pan” (Dec 7 – Jan 6) – The Crucible Lyceum Studio goes flying with Peter Pan. Damian Williams is again among the cast.
Southampton: “Dick Whittington” (Dec 15 – Jan 6) – The Mayflower Theatre plays host to Dick and his cat. We spy a lordly ending.
Sunderland: “Peter Pan” (Dec 14 – Jan 6) – Another winning combination of pantomime performers are set to entertain at the Sunderland Empire.
Swansea: “Cinderella” (Dec 14 – Jan 13) – The Grand Theatre in South Wales is festive home to Cinders and Buttons.
Swindon: “Aladdin” (Dec 8 – Jan 6) – The Wyvern Theatre is the place where Aladdin hopes all his wishes come true.
Woking: “Cinderella” (Dec 7 – Jan 6) – The New Victoria Theatre in Woking, Surrey has boasted some big names in recent times and this year is no exception as Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood leads the cast.
Wolverhampton: “Sleeping Beauty” (Dec 8 – Jan 13) – Can the Sleeping Beauty be awoken by her prince in this Grand Theatre production in the English Midlands?