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.
Pantomime Selection 2019
Aberdeen: “Cinderella” (Nov 30 – Jan 5) – His Majesty’s Theatre stages the enchanting Cinderella, billed as “The Fairy Godmother of All Pantomimes”.
Bath: “Beauty & the Beast” (Dec 12 – Jan 12) – The cast at Bath’s Theatre Royal includes Wendi Peters, once of Coronation Street.
Belfast: “Beauty & the Beast” (Nov 30 – Jan 12) – May McFettridge celebrates a 30th consecutive year in pantomime at the Grand Opera House, this time in Beauty & the Beast.
Birmingham: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (Dec 21 – Feb 2) – The Hippodrome’s tradition appears to be start late but run well into the New Year. Lesley Joseph and Joe McElderry star in this season’s production.
Bradford: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (Dec 14 – Jan 26) – Billy Pearce, back in Bradford once more, and Strictly 2018 finalist Faye Tozer are among the cast of Snow White at the Alhambra Theatre.
Bristol: “Dick Whittington” (Dec 7 – Jan 5) – The headline act in Bristol this year is Shane Richie. The venue is the Hippodrome.
Cardiff: “Cinderella” (Dec 7 – Jan 12) – Fashion fixture Gok Wan is now a regular in panto, too, and this year takes a turn in Cinderella at New Theatre Cardiff.
Edinburgh: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (Nov 30 – Jan 19) – 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: “Jack and the Beanstalk” (Nov 30 – Jan 5) – Scottish panto queen Elaine C. Smith is back at Glasgow’s King’s Theatre for a run in Jack and the Beanstalk.
Leeds: “Sleeping Beauty” (Nov 22 – Jan 4) – Carriageworks Theatre has gone down the Sleeping Beauty route this festive season.
Liverpool: “Peter Pan” (Dec 7 – Dec 29) – The Liverpool Empire hosts Peter Pan this year for the festive season.
Llandudno: “Sleeping Beauty” (Dec 7 – Dec 29) – Sherrie Hewson leads the cast in Sleeping Beauty in this Welsh town for 2019.
London: “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” (Dec 7 – Jan 12) – Another star-spangled cast at the London Palladium, led by Paul O’Grady alongside Julian Clary, Nigel Havers and Gary Wilmot.
Manchester: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (Dec 6 – 29) – This year’s Opera House panto sees Strictly’s Craig Revel Horwood in Wicked Queen mode.
Milton Keynes: “Aladdin” (Dec 6 – Dec 29) – The Milton Keynes Theatre production stars Holby City’s Lee Mead in the title role and comedian Joe Pasquale.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne: “Beauty and the Beast” (Nov 26 – Jan 19) – The Theatre Royal sees several northeast panto mainstays return to the stage in Beauty and the Beast.
Nottingham: “Cinderella” (Nov 30 – Jan 5) – Les Dennis and Gareth Gates are among the Cinderella cast at the Theatre Royal.
Plymouth: “Cinderella” (Dec 20 – Jan 18) – Audiences at Plymouth’s Theatre Royal can see Brian Conley headline the cast in Cinderella.
Portsmouth: “Aladdin” (Dec 11 – Jan 5) – The Kings Theatre stages Aladdin this festive season.
Richmond, London: “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (Dec 7 – Jan 5) – The Richmond Theatre sees Snow White and her friends bring their story to pantomime life.
Sheffield: “Cinderella” (Dec 6 – Jan 5) – The Crucible Lyceum Studio is in the Cinderella swing this Christmas and New Year.
Southampton: “Peter Pan” (Dec 14 – Jan 5) – The Mayflower Theatre plays host to Peter and his flying antics.
Sunderland: “Cinderella” (Dec 13 – Jan 5) – Another winning combination of pantomime performers are set to entertain at the Sunderland Empire.
Swansea: “Peter Pan” (Dec 13 – Jan 12) – The Grand Theatre in South Wales is festive home to Peter Pan, with Kevin Johns among the cast.
Swindon: “Sleeping Beauty” (Dec 7 – Jan 5) – The Wyvern Theatre is the place to see Michelle Collins lead the cast in Sleeping Beauty.
Woking: “Aladdin” (Dec 7 – Jan 5) – The New Victoria Theatre in Woking, Surrey features Aladdin hoping to see all his wishes come true.
Wolverhampton: “Dick Whittington” (Dec 7 – Jan 12) – Sue Pollard is among the stars in this Grand Theatre production in the English Midlands. It is the theatre’s 125th anniversary year.
For more details on these and other pantomimes across the UK 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.
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.
Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Life
Sir Paul McCartney is 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 is set for its opening night late 2020.
“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, 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.