"Oh, No It Isn't": Pantomime in Manchester and Liverpool
Bought your pantomime ticket yet? Let us tell you why you should've
Christmas: the only time of the year when overtly patterned jumpers are acceptable and copious amounts of food can be guiltlessly consumed. Television becomes cheesier, Slade rake in their royalties and Quality Street’s Green Triangles become a staple of your diet. It is the time for family, tradition and warm fuzzy feelings – it is the time for pantomime.
Gender-crossing actors, garish costumes, slapstick humour and sexual innuendo are just some of the ingredients that contribute to the hugely successful (and yet ultimately ridiculous) British pantomime. Throw in a white-toothed Ray Quinn and a couple of water pistols and you’ve got yourself a sold-out house.
Pantomime has a rich history in Western culture dating back to classical theatre: it was developed partly from the 16th-century commedia dell'arte tradition of Italy, as well as other European and British stage traditions such as 17th-century masques. The timing of the British pantomime at Christmas and the role reversal of the lead characters may have evolved from the Tudor ‘Feast of Fools’: an unruly event presided over by the Lord of Misrule (who was usually a specially selected commoner with a questionable reputation). No ‘Feast of Fools’ was complete without excessive drinking, general revelry and role reversal – much like the plot of every American Pie film ever made. Yawn.
Unfortunately, contemporary pantomimes are a little less like an undergrad social and tailored more specifically towards a family audience – but fear not, there is fun to be had if you embrace the silliness. And there is a lot of silliness to be embraced…
Take audience participation – arguably the golden key to pantomime's continued success. Four hundred years ago it may have been acceptable to throw a rotten vegetable at Iago as he plots Othello’s downfall, but nowadays – and call me cosmopolitan – it is just not the done thing. Imagine catching an RSC actor in the head with a cut-price Sainsbury’s tomato or voicing your opinion on Dame Judi’s speech from the front row of the circle – before she had finished it. Equity would have a nightmare. Actors would riot in the streets. We all know the sorry tale of Morrissey and the flying bottle…
Pantomime, on the other hand, commits wholeheartedly to audience participation, and that can extend way beyond the usual prompted chorus of ‘he’s behind you.’ A friend of mine from Sheffield recently told me that her childhood pantomime experiences included a large batch of homemade dough that was subsequently thrown onto the stage at the designated ‘dough-throwing moment.’ The audience were invited to make the dough as creatively as they wished – the friend in question describes hers as pink and glittery – before literally lobbing it around the auditorium. The musicians leave the orchestra pit to avoid the line of fire but over the years the audience have grown wise and many people hang on to their bits of dough and bombard the band the moment they resume their seats. I kid you not.
While dough throwing may not have caught on in the microcosm of Northwest pantomime (yet) there are plenty of other ways to engage. While most pantos invite you to boo, hiss and cheer to your heart’s content, Liverpool Everyman’s iconic Rock 'n' Roll pantomime (which returns to the building this year in the guise of Little Red Riding Hood after transferring to the Playhouse during the Everyman's rebuild) is more party than production, with a live band that has the audience on their feet year after year. The pantomime has become a staple of the theatre’s programme, with the demand as high now as it has ever been.
There is also, of course, the promise of a celebrity lead. Imagine Warwick Davis in a leading role as one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs, red velvet cap and all. That’s enough to make anybody’s Christmas, right? Pantomime has long been the playground of the struggling actor, unwilling to relinquish their taste of fleeting celebrity. They know it, we know it, and they know that we know it – and with a concoction like that hilarity is bound to ensue.
Dressed in a colourful costume and peaked hat, the pantomime hero is the most coveted role of all, winning over their audience with a mixture of charm and desperation. Ray Quinn and his pearly whites take the title role in Liverpool Empire’s Aladdin this Christmas, with Claire Sweeney on hand to appease any rowdy Liverpudlians.
Elsewhere, Warwick Davis stars in Manchester Opera House’s forthcoming production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, alongside none other than Priscilla Presley. Occupying the role of the Wicked Queen for the second time, Presley’s pantomime debut occurred two years ago at the New Wimbledon Theatre. Elvis would be proud.
Jack and the Beanstalk has proved a popular choice this year, with productions appearing at the Epstein, Theatre Royal St Helens and Salford Arts Centre. It may seem like careless programming, but pantomime has never been known for its extensive repertoire. After all, there are few stories strong enough to carry a pantomime dame and an assortment of colourful wigs.
Reliant on slapstick humour worthy of a Carry On film, pantomime appeals to our British sensibility. Double entendre flows through the veins of the genre, with Widow Twankey’s steaming buns mentioned at least once if the performance is to be deemed a success. The characters are strictly one dimensional: the good are good, the bad are bad and Daisy the wide-eyed cow is as lovely as she seems.
The point is, it is all just bloody good fun. No other production caters equally to your 73-year-old granddad and five-year-old sister. No other production invites you to boo at the top of your lungs at the sheer hint of Priscilla Presley’s name. No other production has quite the same feel-good factor – and that’s the thing to remember.
Little Red Riding Hood, Liverpool Everyman, until 17 Jan
Aladdin, Liverpool Empire, 13 Dec – 4 Jan
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Manchester Opera House, 5 Dec – 4 Jan
Jack and the Beanstalk: The Epstein Theatre, Liverpool, 11 Dec – 4 Jan; St Helen's Theatre Royal, 5 Dec – 11 Jan; Salford Arts Centre, 11 Dec – 3 Jan