For theatre... online, non-professional, amateur
The Touring Panto (Panto Special)

The Touring Panto (Panto Special)

Touring pantomimes are very much part and parcel of the pantomime season, with many companies performing their shows the length and breadth of the UK, giving children their first experience of theatre…

I worked in a variety of schools for over thirty-five years and can honestly say that any visiting theatre company is greeted with great excitement by the children – and not just because they get a break from regular lessons. For most children the excitement starts from the moment they are told about a pantomime or show. There are those who have never seen a live performance so teachers will explain the process in advance and reassure those who may be anxious about the whole thing.

Speaking and listening skills are developing beforehand – an event like this generates excitement and promotes discussion both before and after the event. Some children talk about the pantomimes that their parents or grandparents have taken them to see, whilst their friends listen avidly. The anticipation is building up.

The big day arrives. One of the pupils, on an errand to the school office, has noticed a van parked outside the school and tells others. The buzz travels along corridors and into classrooms – ‘They’re here!’ Excuses are made to get out of class and go for a wander, via the hall, for a quick peek at the ‘pantomime people’ setting up.

And then the time has come. Follow me if you will into the heart of any school – that wonderful vast space known as the hall, used for assemblies, breakfast and after-school clubs, PE, school dinners, PTA meetings, Christmas Fayres and small pockets of differentiated learning sessions. PE benches and chairs have been set out in front of electrical equipment, behind curtains the scenery and stage are set, and classes are filing into the hall to take their seats. The atmosphere is electric. The anticipation palpable.

Whether the panto is Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk or Treasure Island these self-contained shows have something for everyone, be it the music, dancing, knockabout comedy routines or puppetry. All credit to the actors involved in putting on these pantomimes, particularly those who perform in two schools on the same day. Many companies use between four to six actors for a show, depending on the number of characters, with some playing more than one role. Their energy is boundless, and for sixty minutes they capture the hearts and imagination of hundreds of children. And the best part about the touring shows is that it gives youngsters their first experience of live performance, triggers questions and promotes discussion about the characters, set, songs etc. Lunchtime play takes on a whole new scenario as children become pirates, animals and other characters from the pantomime they have just seen.

I was that child and remember the time, over fifty years ago, that a theatre company visited our primary school and staged Coppelia. I was enthralled. My first theatre trip as a child was to a London Theatre. The school hired a coach and we travelled from Essex to The Mermaid Theatre, Puddledock (I love that name) to watch Treasure Island. Bernard Miles played Long John Silver and Spike Milligan played Ben Gunn – what a performance. I still treasure that memory. I was totally engaged with the action and developed a lasting love of theatre, thanks to my primary school realising the importance of live theatre to a child’s learning journey. Nowadays many school budgets are so tight that there is no ‘spare’ money to pay for a visiting production, and that is such a shame because there is nothing more joyful than the sound of a child’s laughter.

As well as school visits touring panto companies travel the country playing at various venues ranging from village and church halls, clubs and even leisure centres. For the past few years I have enjoyed Trio Entertainment’s pantomimes which are performed at a leisure centre in Kent. This season the company produced professional pantomime for eight theatres across the country. Many of the star names are actors from EastEnders, Coronation Street etc. and are supported by professional actors and dancers from local dance schools.

The benefits of doing a long run or a few shows at one venue is that the actors and techie can familiarise themselves with the set up and get to know the local area. One of the disadvantages of a ‘one-night’ performance is that it doesn’t give the actors time to build a rapport within the local community. Other downsides are early starts, rushed get-ins and the attention to detail needed for the technical side of things given the time restrictions. Once it finishes they have to pack everything up again and travel to their next venue which could well be the other end of the country where the process starts again.

Touring theatre companies boast of entertaining over a million people, quite a feat and responsibility. Like most of the touring pantomime companies M & M Productions – a company which extensively visits and entertains schools – has a wide range of scripts which are written by an in-house team. Gary Starr Pantomimes – billing itself as ‘The Magical Touring Pantomime Company’ – has over twenty-five years’ history in the entertainment business, with Gary himself as the creative mind behind the company. He writes, produces, directs and makes the odd appearance in a production or two. A read of Gary’s ‘join the team’ blurb left me chuckling. For actors who want to hone their skills, touring pantomime offers the perfect opportunity. It is certainly worth checking the terms and conditions to find the pantomime company to suit you.

Both professional and amateur pantomime is big business with more adults, drawn by star names and lavish sets and costumes, going to the big theatres in cities like London, Manchester, Southampton, Hull, Birmingham, Glasgow etc. Touring pantomimes are thriving and expanding annually in a variety of venues with top quality shows. For amateur theatre groups and societies pantomime is their lifeblood, and there are thousands of well-polished pantomimes being performed in church or village halls and small theatres across the UK.