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PANTO SPECIAL 2021A Panto Fairy-in-Waiting

A Panto Fairy-in-Waiting

by Cheryl Barrett

Due to Covid restrictions pantomimes have been cancelled. The Isle of Wight Fairy is standing at her kitchen sink reflecting on what pantomime means to her…


I’m an out of work fairy, confined to my kitchen sink.
Longing to do pantomime and give a panto fairy wink.
But I’m up to my eyes in soapsuds, scrubbing dirty dishes.
Desperate to be up on stage, granting panto fairy wishes.
My fairy wand has been exchanged for a feather duster.
Alas, a cheery fairy smile is more than I can muster.

I miss the fun and mayhem, camaraderie and the cast.
Creating magic moments that I know will last and last.
I miss singing upbeat panto songs and the backstage banter,
Costumes, props and panto horse complete with comic canter.
I miss opening night, last-minute glitches, palpitations.
Audience cheers, wild applause that exceeds expectations.

I miss the panto dame with all the slap and schtick.
The funny pantomime routines, delivery sharp and slick.
As for the panto baddies, I miss the hisses and boos.
Stay at home or perform onstage? I know what I would choose.
Pantos have been cancelled – as theatres keep stating.
My fairy wand is redundant; I’m a panto fairy-in-waiting.

But soft, what light through yonder kitchen window is beaming?
Pantomime is happening, but mostly online streaming.
I won’t throw away my magic fairy wand at all.

(Wave wand)

Thanks to modern technology…
I shall go to the ball.


Richard James
(regular column)

Tamara Von Werthern
(brand-new column)

I’ll Be In My Trailer!
(coffee-break interview with producer, Katy Lipson)

Top Taps Trinity Players
(a choreographer’s diary as Trinity Players take on Top Hat)

I Believe that Children are Our Future
(argument for am-dram to produce more theatre for children)

Your News
(regular newspaper-style pages featuring all your stories)

Panto Special 2019
(annual 26-page feature includes our interview with Claire Sweeney)

All the Sea’s a Stage
(review of the first Floating Festival – Stages at Sea)

Playing with Scale
(experience and advice from the NT’s set design exhibition)

Broadway Transfer
(a behind-the-scenes trip to the bright lights of Broadway)

Strike Up the Band!
(regular look at what the musical theatre industry has to offer)

New Plays, Books & Musicals
(regular listings of new books and available shows)

Advertisers & Supporters

2019 Panto Special – National Treasure Claire Sweeney

2019 Panto Special – National Treasure Claire Sweeney

Above: Claire Sweeney as Carabose in Sleeping Beauty for UK Productions at Assembly Hall Theatre in Tunbridge Wells, 2018. Photo: Courtesy of UK Productions

We kick off this year’s Panto Special with a star interview with national treasure, Claire Sweeney, who has been performing pantomime for thirty years. Paul Johnson caught up with Claire as she was about to entertain Assembly Hall Theatre’s matinee audience in Tunbridge Wells in December for UK Productions’ family-friendly Sleeping Beauty.

How has Sleeping Beauty been going for you this year? …We gave it a healthy 4-star review by the way.
“I’ve love it, and I also love Tunbridge Wells. Plus the schedule this year is fantastic as some days we only have one show, which means I’m able to go home early. I took my little boy to nursery this morning, we have a 2.30pm show and then we’re finished in the afternoon so I can pick him up too. So not only is it a lovely show, everything about it is brilliant.”

UK Productions heavily focus on children and keeping panto tradition alive. Are you a fan of the more traditional elements?
“I am I suppose. For instance I think the song-sheet, where children come up onstage is wonderful and kids love it too. The proudest moment for a parent is to see your little kid up there.”

I remember seeing you in Sleeping Beauty at The Churchill Theatre Bromley a few years ago. How many pantomimes have you been in now?
“I’ve been in panto for nearly thirty years now. The first one I did I was playing principal boy, which I don’t think they even do these days. This year was the first time they asked me if I wanted to be good or bad, and for me it was a no-brainer. ‘I wanna be bad,’ I said. I call it the three ages of panto: the first is principal boy or principal girl; then comes the evil Queen, Stepmother or Witch; then, you know when you’re starting to get older when you’re offered Fairy Godmother.”

Of course, this year you get to play alongside Quinn Patrick, who I’ve interviewed in the past, and is probably my all-time favourite dame in the business…
“He’s wonderful isn’t he? He’s sharp, he can sing and you know what, it’s a real art being a good dame… And he’s nailed it. On top of that he’s a good company member, and that’s so important. We had a bit of a laugh on press night when he almost forgot the name of the charity after the curtain call. I …kept winding him up and telling him the wrong name, so when he came to announcing it to the audience he looked round at me because his head was so mixed up. Ha ha!”

Who has been your favourite person to work with in panto so far?
“I’m not just saying it but I absolutely love this company, UK productions. Working with George Sewell does stand out. I was seventeen and it was in Nottingham for one of my first panto appearances, and he was so kind to me, him and his family. My first pantomime ever was at the Liverpool Empire with Peter Howick – that was back in his Bread days. Wow! That was a long time ago now.”

Is playing the baddie where you feel most comfortable?
“Yes! At the moment playing the baddie’s wonderful. I love it and the more boos and hisses I get the better. My four-year-old son came last week, and he’s seen me do three pantos now, but when I ‘Face Timed’ him in the interval he was crying and couldn’t look at me. I think he suddenly realised that people didn’t like his mummy. So when I took him to nursery this morning and we were chatting I said, ‘Jackson, are you scared of Mummy?’ And he said, ‘No, I wasn’t scared of you. I was upset because I thought the Princess had died.’ And that’s a bit of an insight because the young children absolutely believe everything they see on stage. That’s why we have to play the truth of it, which is what I do. But that did freak me out a bit, knowing I’d upset my son. He knows I’m pretending and he still believed it. It’s a very fine line that you have to get as close as you can to without stepping over it.”

How does appearing in panto compare to being in one of the many musicals you’ve starred in?
“Well, for a start, with two shows a day the schedule is usually a lot harder in a panto than it would be for a musical. But I think this year it’s about as close to a West End musical as you’re going to get because of the people in it. There are no laggers in this production, they’re all sensational and could easily be placed straight into any show.”

Your appearances on Strictly, Celebrity Big Brother, Let’s Dance for Comic Relief and Loose Women, gives us a glimpse of the real Claire Sweeney. Does panto also do this?
“There are moments when I feel like dropping out of character and let the scouser out. I did it once but I’m not so sure it would translate down South.”

You come across as a down-to-earth grafter, happy to mix your career with lots of genres. Do you love everything equally or is there one particular genre which is your true calling?
“I love musicals. Musicals have been my absolute passion since I was a kid singing in the clubs and doing am-dram. The dream was to always be in the West End. I performed with Southport Youth Theatre, where also I auditioned for Chicago – and didn’t get the part, but got to play it in the West End years later, ha ha! I did all that because I was earning a living singing in the clubs at the age of fourteen. I knew I wanted to do musical theatre and thought, ‘I’ve got to get experience in playing these parts.’ So I joined Southport. I also performed with Birkenhead Operatic Society, which was where I did my very first show at the age of eleven. In Oliver! I even had a solo line: ‘Cold jelly and custard.’ I’m now patron of Birkenhead Operatic Society, which I’m very proud of.”

How important was professional training to your subsequent success?
“Very important, and I’ll tell you for why. I went to a stage school in Liverpool where I was a big fish in a small pond – singing in the clubs on the side. Then, when I came down to London and went to Italia Conti, where there were girls better than me; prettier, skinnier, more experienced. And it slapped me down back into the real world with a bang! I thought, ‘My goodness, I need to really work on my craft to get by because there are some fantastic girls here.’ It was a real eye-opener. So I had to raise my game big time.”

Can you give any advice to the 1000s of panto baddies who are planning to take to the stage in amateur shows around the country?
“Play the truth of it and believe what you’re saying. You don’t need to ham it up, although it is good to have a level of interaction with the audience.”
[At this point the company manager comes in with Claire’s 5-minute call and a flying harness to fit onto the show’s star ahead of Act1, Scn1]
“Come on, we’ll do it now. Darling, you don’t mind me doing this do you, Paul? I’ve got big pants on. If you haven’t seen a pair of cycling shorts you haven’t lived!
“…Where was I …Oh, yes. That’s the wonderful thing about panto; you can break the fourth wall.
“Also you need to look for the humour so there’s plenty of light and shade in your performance. It’s easy to play a one-dimensional baddie… so, humour, truth and try to connect with the audience. It’s important to find those moments where you need to pull back and play the truth, like in the scene where I’m Carabose but disguised as the old lady; I play that completely for real. But there are also moments while I’m up on the tower, right over the audience, where I totally interact with them.”

Strictly or Big Brother? “Strictly.”
Everton or Liverpool? “Everton.”
Hairspray or Legally Blonde? “Hairspray.”
Brookside or Hollyoaks? “Brookside.”
Snow White or Sleeping Beauty? “Snow White.”
Loose Women or This Morning? “Loose Women.”
Panto or Pinter? “Pinter… no, Panto. Ha ha!!”

Panto in Ruins?

Panto in Ruins?

Above: Pantomime’s celebrated return to Croydon’s Fairfield Halls could be short-lived! Imagine Theatre’s spectacular 2019 production of Cinderella in the Fairfield Halls’ Phoenix Concert Hall was led by Strictly winner, Ore Oduba, and stand-up comedian, Tim Vine. Photo: Craig Sugden.

Way back in March, when lockdown was introduced, I don’t think anybody could have predicted that the approaching pantomime season would have been at risk.

At the time, and with eight months still to spare, it was probably pantomime organisers and producers who were breathing huge sighs of relief.

Not so anymore! Theatre closed instantly on Monday, 16th March after Boris ‘advised’ us all to avoid visiting social venues such as pubs, clubs or theatres but, as we face a possible second wave of Caronavirus, getting the performing arts restarted has been a different ball game altogether…

With the easing of lockdown restrictions seemingly slower than an EastEnders’ plotline, all of a sudden pantomimes across the country have been cancelling, postponing or refunding… and that’s not good! Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, pantomime is the biggest money-spinner of the year, often providing a financial crutch for the coming season’s smaller box office draws.

Traditionally, the glitz and glamour of the big-budget professional pantomimes takes place throughout December, usually finishing in early January. However, with Qdos Pantomimes announcing on 3 Aug that following the Government’s decision not to revisit the reopening of indoor theatrical performances until November at the earliest, 2020’s December panto season is as good as over.

Qdos is the world’s biggest panto producer and responsible for thirty-four of the glitziest shows in the UK as well as its celebrated London showpiece at the London Palladium. So when Qdos makes a decision, everybody else listens.

Sardines spoke with head of UK Productions, Martin Dodd, and Laura Taylor, Imagine Theatre’s Celebrity Casting & Production Consultant, in July prior to the big Qdos announcement. At the time, it seems the writing was already on the wall. “There are so many factors which will go into making the final decision,” Laura told me (Imagine produced fifteen pantos last year). “Everyone knows pantomime works because we do two shows a day with high-capacity audiences – and that’s how we make it work financially. At the moment, none of that is pointing in a good direction for us. If we overcame all of the health & safety hurdles that are there, are we going to get the level of audiences that we need? The other battle we’re facing is even if we overcame all of those hurdles and challenges – so the venues could reopen and there was no social distancing and the audience numbers would still come – we would still have the fear of a second spike and a cast member coming down with symptoms, which means we would have to stop the show while everyone self-isolates for two weeks… at the moment, for the producers, there is no insurance cover for that happening.”

Martin Dodd (UK Productions have ten pantos with links to thirty more) agreed with Laura’s opinion and emphasised the importance of eradicating social distancing entirely. “There’s a huge question-mark hanging over whether you can get the same audience levels as before, but obviously with social distancing we can’t; we know that with social distancing we can’t put shows on. But even when you lose social distancing you’ve still got the threat of further lockdowns, quarantine, self-isolation… and it’s not even restricted to the cast and crew. We saw it with the pubs where they were allowed to open and just two days later some of them were closing back down, because somebody had been in the pub who had tested positive for Covid-19. So they were closed for a week or two.”

Pantomimes, the size that UK Productions are used to delivering, can’t think about opening without packed audiences. “If this [self-isolating] applies to a panto we’re losing two shows a day, every day,” Martin points out. “And it’s not just the cast; it’s the whole production process that’s affected. With panto you’ve got such a short time to recoup your outlay. You only have about four and a half weeks to get your money back on basically staging a new musical production. So we can’t afford to lose entire days, let alone weeks.”

Laura mentions some of the other reasons why pantomime needs every seat filled. “The great thing about theatre, why people love it so much, is because it’s a collective experience. You’re there with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people who are all watching the same thing at the same time. To have 20% of your audience – especially for pantomime which is so interactive and needs a packed auditorium shouting at the stage – then it really doesn’t do the genre justice.”

Sardines also spoke with pantomime playwrights, Ben Crocker and Tom Whalley, who both rely on the amateur sector for a large portion of their annual licenses. Ben is well aware of the fine line between amateur and professional panto productions: “Both the amateur and professional sectors are definitely linked; but the amateur productions are not risking so much money. Obviously they DO risk money, but it’s a different financial equation. For a start they’re not paying a star what could be tens of thousands of pounds a week. Also, I think the amateur and the professional markets are differently driven. As mentioned, the amateurs can welcome far more risk, but perhaps in the same way that they’re always looking for different titles to perform. The big professional companies of course like to stick to the regular half a dozen titles. But whether you’re amateur or professional, panto is a vital part of the whole ecosystem, so they are all in the same boat on that front.”

Ben Crocker licensed three hundred productions last year, the vast majority of which were to amateurs. “As far as the amateur sector is concerned, it can be more flexible,” he told me, before suggesting that the amateur arena isn’t as confined as its professional counterparts. “I’m not in any way saying that it’s easy for amateurs; it’s very, very difficult. But every amateur society is different and, unlike the professionals they’re not stuck having to perform over Christmas. They can play later in the year, maybe look towards an Easter panto? If a vaccine IS becoming available around Christmas then the late-February-Easter option starts to look possible.”

Tom Whalley has spent lockdown getting back to his Geordie roots while living with his family back in Newcastle-upon-Tyne; a situation which the playwright was more than happy to put up with. Tom’s panto scripts are performed by both amateur and professionals all over the world. “The public feeling and confidence is very much influenced by the media I feel,” Tom told me in an understandably cynical tone. “A headline or comment from a broadcaster can easily start a mad panic for plain flour and loo rolls or paranoia about local lockdowns. Obviously optimism doesn’t sell as many newspapers or garner as many clicks online.”

Similar to our two producers, Tom also feels that social distancing is a non-starter for panto: “He’s (two metres) behind you!” is my fitting punishment for coming up with the idea of speaking with a panto writer. “As much as I think a ‘socially distanced’ pantomime horse would be a sight for sore eyes I can’t see it working, no. Any type of theatre will suffer the effects of social distancing. Pantomime needs to play to packed houses to make them viable: coach loads of excited kids; care homes popping in for a matinee; whole families coming together from around the world. With distancing measures in place, most theatres can only sell to 30% capacity and they simply cannot afford to run a show at a loss. Especially with the Olivier Award-winning production values that major pantomimes now boast – and many audience members have come to expect.”

Tom also refers to a potential vaccine but, whether that is wishful thinking to save this year’s season is another thing. “I hear down the grapevine that social distancing will be a thing of the past come November but with everything being so conditional, it’s impossible to prepare for panto like any other year. To anyone outside ‘the business’, discussions of Christmas this early always seems laughably premature though we know of course that preparations often begin long before the curtain has come down on last year’s show. Christmas without pantomime will be like Christmas without turkey to hundreds of thousands of families across the UK and the public outcry, I fear, will come too late.”

Laura Taylor explains more about the usual preparation time for one of Imagine’s regular seasonal shows. “Usually, we have a whole year of sales patterns. We normally go on sale for the following year as soon as we open a show and ANY blip in the road on your ticket sales will have a detrimental effect, so to have your whole marketing campaign and sales stopped for six months… we haven’t even been able to announce a star name!

“The usual production cycle is to work eighteen months ahead, so we already know what title and production will go where the year before. Then, as I say, we get all of the performance schedules and ticket prices signed off and ready to go on sale from the previous December. As soon as one panto season is done we go straight into casting and, in an ideal world, we like to get casting announced in February or March. Of course, all of that has had to be put on hold as well plus, behind the scenes, as well as the casting we’re arranging photo shoots, getting artwork designed and organising large school groups to come. So by May we normally have a substantial amount of money in the box office – and all of that has just stopped. We haven’t even been able to get into the stores or offices as we’ve all been working from home.”

Like Tom Whalley, Ben Crocker appears to be holding out for a vaccine to reinstate public confidence. He also reiterates the ability for amateur companies to boast a great deal of flexibility: “I think it’ll be a vaccine that will boost public confidence enough to bring people back into theatres. And I think the amateur market has enough flexibility to capitalise on that if one comes at the end of the year. But as I say, ‘who knows?’ Literally, nobody knows! We’re all making this up as we’re going along, without exception.

“Even the very few who were alive just after the First World War, when we had the flu pandemic in 1918-19, would have themselves been babies. There is nobody with living memory of anything like this,” continues Ben, alluding to the previously un-encountered aspect of the pandemic. “After the Second World War everything bounced back pretty quickly, but there wasn’t a virus to contend with at that time. My parents were both professional actors and were pretty much working directly after the war ended; they were young actors in Rep. But you only have to look back after the 1918-19 flu pandemic to the Roaring Twenties, when things had got back to normal. That’s the year after. So, we just have to keep our fingers crossed.”

As playwright’s, both Ben and Tom have waived any financial penalties for societies that do need to reschedule to next year. “The amateur market, for me, is a much larger part of my licensing base,” Ben told me. “Obviously I want them to be able to take a punt… and knowing it’s not really even a punt because it can be transferred to next year if necessary. Most people also think that, ‘If we want to do Puss in Boots, Cinderella or Treasure Island,’ – whatever it may be – ‘and we can’t, then it doesn’t mean we don’t want to do it next year.’ A lot of societies know that they simply cannot perform this year. They might have a venue for a week, but at a certain time only. And if they can’t have it for whatever reason then it just has to roll over until next year. There are almost as many different sets of circumstances as there are societies aren’t there?

“Everybody’s in a slightly different boat. But the one thing I really have noticed about the amateur sector is that everybody’s very ingenious and they’re usually able to come up with a solution, in all sorts of ways. Within their memberships they’ve normally got people from all walks of life, providing many different areas of expertise. There’s always somebody who’ll be a wizard at something and will blow your socks off.”

“While there has been a perfectly understandable drop in perusal copy requests, my clients are desperate to come back together and get back to doing what they love and do best,” agrees Tom. “I introduced a Covid-secure, no-quibble postponement clause so that any licensed productions though Tom Whalley Pantomimes can be delayed and rescheduled at no additional charge. This has helped many groups book their scripts with confidence for 2020, Easter and even Christmas 2021.”

“I’ve also had groups seeking to use the scripts in new, creative ways,” reports Tom before explaining that an amateur pantomime is definitely not just for Christmas. “One client is using my Robinson Crusoe & The Pirates script for a swashbuckling summer school; developing a whole week of fun activities teaching children about the history of pantomime and piracy culminating in an online pantomime performance. I can’t wait to see it.”

That is for this year, of course. Martin Dodd isn’t so confident that things will get back to normal anytime soon: “Without wishing to be too pessimistic, I wouldn’t bet on being in a better position this time next year,” he told me (in a slightly depressing tone). “Without a vaccine it’s going to take a long time to get back to normal and we’ll [‘Theatre’] be at the bottom of the list when it comes to relaxing the rules and also people having the confidence to return. The reason is simple; people don’t have to do it. They might sit on an aeroplane because they really want to go on holiday and only have a small window of opportunity but when it comes to paying for a ticket to sit in a theatre where they might risk catching the virus, they could just say, ‘I’ll go next month instead.’ So, it’ll be a slow return to normal but I hope I’m wrong!”

Laura Taylor took an arguably more diplomatic route: “I think some of it is a lack of understanding. Don’t get me wrong; I would not want to be in a politician’s shoes at the moment, as I think they’ve got an impossible task ahead of them trying to manage this, so I do sympathise a lot. But I think saying things like, ‘you can open theatres without live performance,’ then it’s not theatre is it; it becomes a cinema or hospitality through the restaurant.”

Martin Dodd isn’t impressed by the Government’s reaction to the crisis either. Regarding the guidelines that were issued he says: “They don’t seem to have been written by anyone who’s had to run a show backstage. They’re Just not practical for large shows; one-way systems, actors in their own bubbles only with the other actors they’re actually acting within the show. They clearly haven’t accounted for putting shows the size of musicals into many of our very old theatres, especially for short runs or touring. From Sardines’ point of view it must be even worse because a few of the guidelines say it’s possible to do some things only if it’s a professional production, and therefore you have to assume that it will be even further down the road before amateur theatre can get the full go ahead.”

The pros and cons of participating in ‘theatre’ – as a hobby – is perhaps the subject of another article. For now, it’s obvious that Martin Dodd is facing some impossible decisions, as well as being completely passionate about producing pantomime. “Even if the Government said that theatres didn’t have to socially distance, returning would still be very difficult from a financial point of view as we are unable to get insurance cover against Covid-related show cancellations. It may have been better If the £1.5 billion, or better still another fund, was used for a cancellation insurance scheme which would be a positive force to get the industry working again. Producers and theatres could take the risk that the public will want to return, knowing that we could call on this pot of money if cancellations happened. That might get things going a lot quicker although we still haven’t seen the detail yet for the grants. I hope that ourselves and others in the supply chain may qualify for some help but apart from the very welcome Furlough scheme unfortunately we didn’t qualify to get even a rates rebate from the retail, hospitality and leisure grant!” …and Martin Dodd’s UK Productions is also in the business of hiring out entire stage sets and costumes to both the amateur and professional markets (housed in five large warehouses across three different sites!).

Ben Crocker agrees that there are plenty of suppliers to theatre companies (many of whom are amateur) who have also fallen victim to the shutdown. “The people, I imagine, who must be having a really tough time at the moment are people such as the costumiers, lighting hire companies, sets, wigs… We obviously sell to the same people but at least I don’t have the overheads and investment in stock. All that kind of thing costs money to operate. We’re all in an impossible situation and, as we’ve said, nobody’s been here before. Whatever happens, mistakes will be made.”

One thing that everybody completely agrees with is that way back in March nobody foresaw the kind of challenges we are all now facing. “Who could have seen this coming?” replied Tom Whalley. “I was very optimistic back in March, reading every article I could find and convincing myself that it was ‘only March’ and things would eventually return to normal in good time. As the reality of the world’s reaction started to become more stark and the question mark over the 2020 pantomime season remained, it became clear that I (both as a resident pantomime performer as well as a writer) needed to prepare for the worst but hope for the best.”

“I think when we went into lockdown in March, everyone had their eyes on China, which was just coming out of their own lockdown,” agrees Laura Taylor. “So we thought, ‘OK, well it’s going to be twelve weeks of hell and then we’re all going to come out of it on the other side.’ I don’t think, at that point, any one of us would have predicted the length and the detrimental effect it was going to have. The trouble is there’s no end date to all of this which is slightly worrying, isn’t it.”

I had The Kite Runner on the road when lockdown came in,” recalls Martin. “We’d literally only played three weeks following rehearsals and had to close the whole thing. With the best will in the world I don’t think it’s going to get better before the spring. The only thing that’s going to change anything is if we get a vaccine.

For the last word, we’ll happily hand over to Ben Crocker: “I think that whatever happens this year, whichever market you wish to focus on it’ll be a very subdued year, and everybody understands that. But I do think that the moment it becomes viable to start to bounce back, I think it will happen with gusto. There will be a real yearning for those community experiences. Again, in the amateur world, I think that community aspect is such an important part of everything. That’s why it’s a slightly different equation to the professional shows. Amateur productions will offer a financially viable way to create that very British seasonal entertainment that we all love.”

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Cancelled 2020 productions…

Since Qdos made its big announcement on Monday, 3 August, December’s regular pantomime slot for this year’s season has been shrinking faster than a pot plant in the summer sunshine. However, the announcements are almost entirely professional and we’ve heard very little from amateur societies that might be waiting in the wings ready to reclaim the pantomime stage.
Here’s a list of the shows that have already cut their losses and announced rescheduled dates for 2021. This is only a snapshot and you can bet there are lots more to come. It’s a long and truly tragic list!

Adam Smith Theatre; Kirkcaldy, Snow White, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 5 Dec – 3 Jan
Anvil Arts, Basingstoke; Beauty and the Beast, UK Productions – Dates: 10 Dec – 3 Jan
Arts Depot, London; Aladdin, Arts Depot – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan
Assembly Hall Theatre, Tunbridge Wells; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Evolution – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Birmingham Hippodrome; Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Qdos – Dates: 19 Dec – 31 Jan
Blackpool Grand; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, UK Productions – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan
Blackpool Winter Gardens; Cinderella, Charming Pantomimes – Dates: 13 Dec – 3 Jan
Bolton Albert Halls; Beauty and the Beast, Polka Dot Pantomimes – Dates: 28 Nov – 31 Dec
Bolton Victoria Hall; Snow White, Joseph Purdy Productions – Dates: 21 Nov – 28 Dec
Buxton Opera House; Aladdin, Scene 3 Creative – Dates: 12 Dec – 1 Jan
The Byre Theatre, St Andrews; Title not listed, The Byre Theatre – Dates: Not listed
Central Theatre, Chatham; Peter Pan, Jordan Productions – Dates: 10 Dec – 3 Jan
The Clifties; Title not listed, The Clifties – Dates: Feb 2021
Curve Leicester; The Wizard Of Oz, Really Useful Group – Dates: 28 Nov – 16 Jan
Durham Gala Theatre; Robin Hood, Gala Theatre – Dates: 25 Nov – 10 Jan
Empire Theatre, Consett; Treasure Island, Leah Bell – Dates: 27 Nov – 31 Dec
Encore Theatre Company; Cinderella, Encore Theatre Company – Dates: Not listed
Exeter Northcott Theatre; Robin Hood, Northcott Theatre – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
Falkirk FTH Theatre; Beauty and the Beast, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 11 Dec – 30 Dec
Glasgow Tron Theatre; The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz, Tron Theatre Company – Dates: 26 Nov – 10 Jan
Grand Opera House, Belfast; Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Qdos – Dates: 28 Nov – 10 Jan
Guildhall Arts Centre, Grantham; Jack and the Beanstalk, Polka Dot Pantomimes – Dates: 15 Dec – 3 Jan
Hackney Empire; Jack and the Beanstalk, Hackney Empire – Dates: 21 Nov – 3 Jan
Harrogate Theatre; Cinderella, Harrogate Theatre – Dates: 25 Nov – 24 Jan
Hexagon Reading; Beauty and the Beast, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 5 Dec – 3 Jan
Hilton Metropole, Brighton; Aladdin, E3 Events – Dates: Not listed
His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen; Beauty and the Beast, Qdos – Dates: 28 Nov – 3 Jan
Kilmarnock Palace Theatre; Aladdin, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 27 Nov – 30 Dec
Kings Theatre, Edinburgh; Sleeping Beauty, Qdos – Dates: 28 Nov – 17 Jan
Kings Theatre, Portsmouth; Peter Pan, Mark Thompson Productions – Dates: 5 Dec – 3 Jan
Loughborough Town Hall; Aladdin, Little Wolf Entertainment – Dates: 21 Nov – 3 Jan
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre; Aladdin, Lyric Hammersmith – Dates: 14 Nov – 3 Jan
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury; Jack and the Beanstalk, Evolution – Dates: 26 Nov – 21 Dec
New Theatre, Cardiff; Aladdin, Qdos – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
New Theatre, Hull; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Qdos – Dates: 12 Dec – 3 Jan
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth; Cinderella, Jordan Productions – Dates: 16 Dec – 2 Jan
Norwich Theatre Royal; Dick Whittington and His Cat, Norwich Theatre Royal – Dates: 8 Dec – 10 Jan
Peterborough New Theatre; Aladdin, Prime Pantomimes – Dates: 12 Dec – 31 Dec
Phoenix Theatre Group; Dick Whittington, Evesham Arts Centre – Dates: 20 Jan – 24 Jan
Porthcawl Grand Pavillion; Aladdin, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Princes Theatre, Clacton; Jack and the Beanstalk, Anton Benson Productions – No dates listed
Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple; Cinderella, Prime Pantomimes – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch; Aladdin, Queen’s Theatre Hornchurch – Dates: 26 Nov – 3 Jan
Rotherham Civic Theatre; Aladdin, Imagine Theatre – Dates: 4 Dec – 10 Jan
Salisbury Playhouse; Cinderella, Wiltshire Creative – Dates: 28 Nov – 10 Jan
The Savoy Theatre, Monmouth; Jack and the Beanstalk, Spontaneous productions – Dates: 14 Dec – 1 Jan
Sheffield Lyceum; Sleeping Beauty, Evolution – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan
South Holland Centre, Spalding; Dick Whittington, Polka Dot Pantomimes – Dates: 9 Dec – 30 Dec
South Shields Customs House; Rapunzel, Customs House – Dates: 25 Nov – 3 Jan
Southampton Mayflower; Cinderella, Qdos – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Southport Waterfront Theatre; Peter Pan, Shone Productions – Dates: 11 Dec – 30 Dec
The Spotlight, Hoddesdon; Peter Pan, PHA Pantomimes – Dates: 11 Dec – 31 Dec
Stafford Gatehouse Theatre; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Prime Pantomimes – Dates: 11 Dec – 3 Jan
Stirling Macrobert Arts Theatre; Mother Goose, Macrobert Arts Theatre – Dates: 27 Nov – 4 Jan
Theatr Clwyd; Beauty and the Beast, Theatr Clwyd – Dates: 20 Nov – 16 Jan
Theatre Royal, Nottingham; Robin Hood, Qdos – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
Theatre Royal, Stratford East; Red Riding Hood, Theatre Royal Stratford East – Dates: 21 Nov – 9 Jan
Theatre Royal, Wakefield; Beauty and the Beast, Theatre Royal Wakefield – Dates: 19 Nov – 3 Jan
Welwyn Garden City Campus West; Jack and the Beanstalk, Campus West – Dates: 10 Dec – 2 Jan
Wolverhampton Grand Theatre; Cinderella, Wolverhampton Grand – Dates: 5 Dec – 10 Jan
Yvonne Arnaud Theatre, Guildford; Robin Hood, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre – Dates: 4 Dec – 3 Jan

The Art of Panto (Panto Special)

The Art of Panto (Panto Special)

At the start of the recent pantomime season Sardines spoke with a host of professionals, some of whom were new to the panto scene, with others highly experienced.
Inside the previous edition, we featured the more recognisable names while, in this issue, we get a chance to hear from the jobbing performers from musical theatre, dramatic theatre, plus the stand-up and cabaret circuits.

Between them we garnered an eclectic mix of opinions and advice that pretty much represents the entire mix of pantomime principals.

  • Ricky Jay (Stand-up comedian) | Wishee, Aladdin, Bromley
  • Max Fulham (Ventriloquist) | Washee, Aladdin, Bromley
  • Yazdan Qafouri (Reality TV – Let It Shine) | Aladdin, Aladdin, Bromley
  • James Bisp (Actor) | Prince Charming, Cinderella, Croydon
  • Jason Marc-Williams (Actor) | Ugly Sister, Cinderella, Croydon
  • Katie Cameron (Actor) | Wicked Stepmother, Cinderella, Croydon
  • James Darch (Actor) | Prince Harry of Hampton, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond
  • Jason Sutton (Actor/Drag Queen) | Nurse Nancy, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond
  • Mia Starbuck (New graduate) | Snow White, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond
  • Pearce Barron (New Graduate) | Aladdin, Aladdin, Woking



Ricky Jay:
“I did eight years on the bounce at the Theatre Royal in Norwich; I was either good or cheap, I’m not sure which, ha ha! I then spent a lot of time working in the States and Australia, so I stopped for eight or nine years after that. But since my wife and I had a baby a couple of years ago, and decided we wanted to spend some more time in the UK, I went back into it. I’ve done about fifteen pantomimes now.”

Max Fulham:
“This is actually my third panto, believe it or not; although I do still feel new to it all, and to the business. But I love panto with all of my heart; I simply adore it. I’m also a massive nerd about it as well. I love the history of it and what it means, the cultural tradition. So I not only passionately love doing it, I also love it as an art form. There’s so much tradition entangled in pantomime, it’s wonderful. I love it when you get a reaction from somebody seeing panto for the first time – and that’s children and adults.”

James Bisp:
“I’ve always wanted to do pantomime but it’s been tricky to fit it round other jobs. I finished a year in Phantom of the Opera in September which, this year, was pretty perfect. I’ve even been able to have a couple of months off – or ‘resting’ as the famous phrase has it. I also live in Croydon so I get to have Christmas at home; it’s all been an incredible piece of timing.”

Jason Marc-Williams:
“This’ll be my 10th panto, but my sixth with Alistair [Barron]. This is only the second time that myself and Alistair have played Ugly Sisters because, of course, the Dame role is usually a very likeable character; the ugly sisters are downright nasty. Usually Alistair and I play the dame and comic role which does tend to become a bit of a double act, so the ugly sisters are perfect for us.”

Katie Cameron:
“Oh, I got it straight away. It’s so funny and I hope it catches on in the States because there are so many regional theatres over there; it will provide so much work for everybody.”

Jason Sutton:
“Panto at Richmond this year will be my tenth pantomime anniversary. I can remember my very first pantomime, as if it were yesterday. That was at Redhill and working for a much smaller company; that was where I cut my teeth. I can remember now being stood in the wings and waiting to go on, and the noise from the children was like a football match. I didn’t anticipate that and remember turning round to the chaperone who was in charge of all the children and I said, ‘I don’t think I can go on!’ to which she said, ‘You’ve got to go on!’ And she just shoved me. Of course once you’re onstage it’s all fine, but I will never ever forget that for the rest of my life.”

Mia Starbuck:
“This is my first one. I trained at LAMDA in New York and at Bodywork. There definitely wasn’t any training on breaking the fourth wall in America. But I think I’m ready; I’m up for the challenge anyway, and I’m sure there will be a great opportunity to learn on-the-job.”

Pearce Barron:
“I’ve just graduated from ArtsEd where I spent five years of my life. So this isn’t just my first panto, it’s my first paid job since graduating.”


Jason Marc-Williams:
“Where some people sometimes get it wrong is when they look for, and play it for, the humour. You’ve still got to find the truth of the story, it’s vitally important. They have their reasons for not liking Cinderella and it’s essential that they believe in those reasons; you have to play the truth of that situation. Hopefully, we’ll get the right balance; you have to be bad in order for good to triumph over evil, but we don’t want to actually make the children cry – they’ve come to enjoy the pantomime after all.”

Katie Cameron:
“The stepmother is the real evil force behind the ugly sisters who, in essence, are really just carrying out her plans. Having the evil stepmother allows the ugly sisters more room to be stupid and, of course, funny. The Stepmother is evil while the ugly sisters are just nasty. That said, the Stepmother is wicked, but also fabulous. The most important thing is probably to play it for real and not ‘ham’ it up. And we’re looking forward to being booed more than in any other show. If we don’t get the boos then there’s a real problem.”


Max Fulham:
“It’s very interesting. You have this phrase: ‘Ventriloquism is a dying art!’ which gets bandied about quite a lot. But it goes in waves, and not necessarily regular or predictable waves. And it doesn’t really matter anyway because as long as I’m doing my thing, bringing my art form to the audience and having a great time then I’m happy because I’m doing what I love to do. But people like Paul Zerdin winning America’s Got Talent has done a lot for ventriloquism. They’ve actually had three ventriloquists win the show now, which is a little bit insane. Also over here, Steve Hewlett coming second on BGT was wonderful. Not only is he the nicest men you could ever hope to meet, he’s also been massively responsible for supporting me as well as other young ventriloquists, and he’s a great friend.”


Jason Marc-Williams:
“Things have moved on over the years and they will continue to do so I’m sure. We used to have the principal boy being played by a girl of course. You get it now and again but broadly speaking it’s faded out, especially in commercial pantomimes. I do hope we don’t lose the tradition of the dame because that character, I think, is vital to the humour of pantomime. Everybody knows it’s a bloke in a dress and we never pretend otherwise. There’s so much freedom in that role, where you even take the mickey out of yourself. I really hope nothing happens to the Dame: one… It would ruin panto forever, and two… I’ll be out of a job!”

Jason Sutton:
“I think because it’s such an important part of our tradition – and also because it is controlled through the script – then it’s safe. If you were to ask me about the drag circuit, then yes, I think that genre definitely is going to change. I’ve said things in my act there on stage that I’ve been saying for years and lately I’ve received complaints about them. So we’re all having to become far more aware of what we’re saying and how are we’re saying it. But the pantomime dame is, I think, as sacred as pantomime itself. Pantomime means Christmas doesn’t it, and I think it will always be there.”


James Bisp:
“It’s amazing to think that you’re in Phantom of the Opera in the autumn and a few months later, pantomime. Variety. That’s why I’m an actor, because I like variety and creating different things. I’ve always wanted to play Raoul in Phantom and I’ve had a very close relationship with that show for years – but, you can’t get your jazz hands out in Phantom!”


Ricky Jay:
“I think my role, essentially, is to keep the energy up for the show and that starts as soon as I come on. I am immediately trying to create energy in the room. It’s important for me to do that and keep that energy up so that the important people in the show – who are carrying the plot – can get the story out. So if there is a pressure, I think it’s to get the buzz and the energy going.”

Jason Sutton:
“We are very colourful characters; it’s all a bit zany and mad anyway, which is exactly what the kids like. I’m a hefty bloke so when I’m dressed up as a woman, coming onstage on a bicycle is a bit of a spectacle in itself. Plus the costumes are also colourful and very over-the-top. When you add that to the fact that the kids there to buy into it anyway then you’re halfway there already – hopefully, they’ve all had their tickets waiting on the wall at home for some time and have been getting excited about the trip anyway.”


Ricky Jay:
“I also get to break the fourth wall down because I’m always interacting with the audience. Of course, with my normal job as a stand-up comedian, that’s what I’m doing all the time. There, the audience is an essential part of the act.”

Max Fulham:
”That’s the wonderful thing with comic roles in panto; you have the ability to talk with the wonderful audience. And, of course, as a ventriloquist all my shows are spent talking to the audience. It’s never passive; it’s always involving them and having fun with them.”

Jason Sutton:
“Just working in front of live audiences is an amazing preparation for pantomime. When I worked the cabaret circuit, you’re a lot freer and I’m totally unscripted which enables me to work with all the people around me and in the audience. When you’re in a panto, obviously you are tied by the script and if you don’t deliver it in the correct way then you won’t give people the right cues, which means it can all go a little bit tits up! But certainly working on the live circuit – and especially in genres like cabaret – is an enormous help for things like pantomime.”


Ricky Jay:
“I’m quite heavily involved in developing the script, so we work quite closely on it prior to rehearsals, and then when we get going things evolve in the rehearsal room – and during the show as well. Thankfully, the comic role has got a bit of a free rein, so if something happens in the show then I can jump on that… and would be expected to.”


Ricky Jay:
“Obviously the audience reaction is a fantastic part of what we do. The laughter and the special effects especially. In fact I often go out and have a little peek through the curtains at the kids’ faces when the carpet flies. To see how much they believe in it is wonderful to watch.
“I also look forward to having a cup of tea and a cake with Biggins in the interval; we’ve never missed one yet. He’s even got a bed in his room and has a little sleep between the matinee and the evening performances. I don’t get a bed; I’ve got a blow-up mattress on the floor. Maybe you get a bed when you pass 40 pantos, ha ha!”

Jason Sutton:
“Apart from the run itself, I’m looking forward to being in a group of strangers all getting together, and within a fortnight of rehearsals you’ve got to come up with the show. It’s quite amazing from that first day how it all starts to fall into place. Sometimes you think, ‘Christ! This ain’t gonna be ready.’ Then, all of a sudden it’s like a collective penny drops. I enjoy the rehearsal period far more than the performance actually, and you look round and think, ‘Yeah, this is what it’s all about!’”

Pearce Barron:
“I can’t wait for the bits that are bound to go wrong. It’s so exciting being on the other side so I can find out which parts people are genuinely laughing at and which are maybe a little bit scripted and even rehearsed.”


Max Fulham:
“I get nervous, of course I do, before opening night, press night, and even rehearsals. A long run makes you nervous too because you don’t want to muck up. Essentially, I’m doing a double-act by myself, so I really don’t want my monkey to muck-up. The nerves do turn to excitement, which is where the adrenaline kicks in and that’s great, it’s the most incredible thing. When you’re doing the very first show in front of an audience, you get a fight or flight moment which really builds up. You just have to go on and do it; at the end of the day the audience is there to have a good time and there’s a strong sense of collaboration with the audience, which helps, obviously.”


Yazdan Qafouri:
“I’ve always wanted to be an actor, from a very young age. Actually, while I was doing the auditions for Let It Shine I was auditioning for drama school. I was rejected from my first round at RADA but had recalls from Guildhall and Oxford School of Drama. I would never demerit drama school, but that’s just not the path I’ve taken so far; I’ve probably done things quite similar to the old-fashioned rep theatre process and learned on the job. In the book True and False by David Mamet, he says that ‘the only way you can learn is by doing.’ And he talks about the ‘fires’ of an audience, and it’s only in front of an audience that you know you’re doing the right job. You can do a million exercises in drama school but it’s only when you get in front of an audience that you’re really tested.
“Something else you don’t get at drama school is working with such experienced actors, and it doesn’t matter which genre you’re performing in, the experience that Christopher Biggins has got is priceless. Even at our launch back in September, during the twenty minutes I was around him the first thing you realise is that he’s not afraid to take risks.”

Pearce Barron:
“Professional attitude and technique is the great thing about training, and the fact that it gives you a route into the industry. If you were trying to get into the pop industry, there is no specific formula laid down to do that, whereas in musical theatre there is – and it allows you to be the most prepared you can be.
“I feel as prepared as I should be but I think it’s true when people say drama school will teach you in attitude and the technique of being a professional but there is a certain amount of inward talent that you need naturally to make it in this industry. Drama school also teaches you how to be versatile which is a great quality to have. Both myself and Misha [Princess] went to the Sylvia Young school when we were younger and that helped a great deal too in that respect.”


James Darch:
“I always think of the Prince and Snow White as being the driving force of the story, and we let the other guys have a play with the audience. Keeping it together and driving the story is half the challenge for us; that’s our jobs. It’s quite a compliment, I guess, that they constantly try to make us laugh and test us to see how far they can take it.”

Mia Starbuck:
”You’ve got to take it seriously. You do want to laugh and get involved with all the silliness as well, but you’ve got to stay strong and keep it together. It’s a very responsible job that we’ve got. You’ve got to live up to the expectations that the youngsters have. If you burst that bubble for them it would be so sad. So you want them to believe as much as they possibly can that we really are Snow White and Prince Charming…”

James Darch:
“… and that’s our job isn’t it. When you go to the theatre and you’re five, six, seven years old, I don’t think you even understand properly that there are actors on the stage. You sit there in the theatre and as far as you’re concerned, what you’re watching is really happening. So we do have to be serious about our story just to keep that going. You cannot forget how important the story is within a pantomime.”

Mia Starbuck:
“… and they need to get really upset when I bite into the apple, and then sit there wide-eyed as the Prince kisses me.”


James Bisp:
“I grew up on the amateur scene in Buckinghamshire doing pantos is every year, then I did youth theatre in High Wycombe and with the National Youth Theatre – and that’s when I decided that this was the career I wanted to follow. There’s nothing like being in a production, in a cast, and being in a cast of hilarious people is a massive bonus.”

The Great British Panto Chase Off Quiz (Panto Special)

The Great British Panto Chase Off Quiz (Panto Special)

Imagine if you will a popular TV quiz show given a panto feel…

Buttons: (To Audience.) Hello, everyone and welcome to The Great British Panto Chase Off Quiz, where our Chasers give the contestants the runaround. From Pantoland we have four contestants hoping to beat our Panto Chase Villain. Today’s villain to beat is the dark side destroyer himself – Abanazzar.

Abanazar: I’ll stop these panto characters from getting their hands on the money if it’s the last thing I do.

4 Contestants: OH, NO YOU WON’T!

Abanazar: OH, YES I WILL!

4 Contestants: OH, NO YOU WON’T!

Abanazar: OH, YES I WILL!

Buttons: Looking at this motley crew of contestants my money is on Abanazar. Right, let’s introduce our first contestant. She is always on the pull and used to milking every panto joke going.

Dame Trott: (To Buttons.) Speak for yourself, dear heart. (To Audience.) Ooh, hello boys and girls, I’m Dame Trott, I own a dairy.

Buttons: I hope you’re wearing your winter drawers, I heard your dairy is Freesian.

Dame Trott: (To Man in audience.) It may be Freesian but don’t you worry, handsome – I’m hot stuff and my hands are lovely and warm.

Buttons: That’s some frock you’re wearing, love, business must be heffer so good. Are you ready for your first question?

Dame Trott: Bring it on, big boy.

Buttons: This one’s right up your milking shed, love. Why do cows wear bells? A.) Because their horns don’t work. B.) Because they ding dong merrily on high. Or C.) So that you can locate them in a pea-souper fog?

(Abanazar and Dame Trott press buzzers.)

Buttons: The correct panto answer was ‘A.) because their horns don’t work’. Well done, Dame Trott. Abanazar, you pressed ‘B’ which is incorrect. One-nil to the Pantoland contestants.

Abanazar: I’ll get even with you lot…

Buttons: Yeah, keep deluding yourself, Avvabanana. Right, let’s introduce our charming second contestant. Tell us who you are and what you do, princess.

Cinderella: My name is Cinderella and I’m a scullery maid. I’m waiting for Mister Right to come along.

Dame Trott: Aren’t we all, dear. Just remember that I saw him first.

Buttons: Good luck, Cinders. Here’s your question. Which famous author wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls? Was it A.) Justin Time. B.) Ernest Hemingway. Or C.) Ivanna Rolex?

(Abanazar and Cinderella press buzzers.)

Buttons: The correct panto answer was ‘B’. Well done, Cinders.

Cinderella: Really? I meant to press ‘C.) Ivanna Rolex’.

Buttons: Azabajanar you were wrong again; why did you press ‘C’?

Abanazar: Because I wanna Rolex.

Buttons: Yeah, well you’d better start saving up, mate. Right, let’s introduce our next contestant. Tell us who you are and what you do.

Wishee: My name is Wishee Washee and I help my Mum run her lingerie laundry business: ‘Where there’s muck there’s bras’.

Buttons: That job sounds pants if you ask me.

Wishee: Yeah, washing undies isn’t all it’s scrubbed up to be.

Buttons: Ok Wishee, here’s your question. Who directed the film My Beautiful Launderette? Was it A.) C. Stermatic. B.) Della Cutwash. Or C.) Stephen Frears?

(Abanazar and Wishee Washee press buzzers.)

Buttons: You both pressed ‘C’ so you’re both right. It all rests on the final question and our next contestant.

Robin Hood: (Slaps thigh.) I’m Robin Hood. I live in Nottingham and I rob the rich and give to the poor.

Buttons: Loving the tights, Robin. (To Abanazar.) Avva pyjama, you need to win this to force a tie break.

Abanazar: I’m in it to win it. The money is as good as mine, mwah ha ha.

Buttons: Ok Robin, here’s your question. What is the name of the annual market in Nottingham? Is it A.) The Goosey Goosey Gander Fair. B.) The Mother Goose Fair. Or C.) The Goose Fair?

(Robin presses buzzer.)

Buttons: Avvallama, I need your answer. Three, two, one – too late.

Abanazar: (Holds bag of money aloft.) Too bad for you that I have already won – the money is mine, all mine, mwah ha ha.

Robin Hood: You won’t get away with this, Abanazar. (Slaps thigh.) Okay, gang – let’s give chase.

(Cue Yakkitty Sax music. Comedy business as Dame Trott, Wishee Washee, Cinderella, Robin Hood and Buttons chase Abanazar backwards and forwards across the stage.)

Buttons: Thanks for watching The Great British Panto Chase Off Quiz.


Bradley Walsh as Smee with Flawless in Peter Pan at Milton Keynes (2014)

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.

The Big Producers (Panto Special)

The Big Producers (Panto Special)

Paul Johnson speaks with Mark Jones, Marketing Manager of Qdos Pantomimes

While we were in Woking prior to this year’s big pantomime extravaganza, Aladdin, we were fortunate to sit down with Mark Jones. Qdos’ Marketing Manager gave us an insight into what makes the world’s biggest pantomime producer tick.

How difficult is it to keep pantomime writing one step ahead of today’s hyper-sensitive and politically-correct society? Is panto possibly one of the only surviving genres that still has a free pass?
“It does and it doesn’t. We are very careful. We want to honour the tradition of panto – and do it justice, but we need to keep in mind different issues that exist today. For example, we went to a school in Milton Keynes earlier this year to talk to the head teacher about panto in general and she made the point that even little things like splitting up the boys and girls for the songsheet is a tricky thing to do. In her school she has three or four kids who identify as trans, and to me, I hadn’t thought about that at all. We constantly have the audience in mind so we’re treading that line but not crossing it because we don’t ever want to cause harm and offence to anyone. So even down to that level you have to be careful that you’re not pushing the boundaries too far.
“The Dame is so iconic in the world of panto that it would be a shame to lose that character entirely. It’s funny because they’re never ladylike and often what makes them funny is the grotesque look rather than glamorous.”

Has the rise of social media helped or hindered your job?
“Generally, I think it’s helped. It’s always interesting to see instant reactions to casting announcements, for example, and we monitor it very carefully so we are keeping up to date with who’s popular etc. You have to don’t you, and it’s a really good temperature gauge in terms of ‘what are people really responding to well?’ Obviously people do have their opinions and we welcome that. Sometimes we get negative social media attention and that’s fine too. My current favourite is – because we are in the middle of launching [our pantomimes], I’ll send tweets out saying, ‘Here are some of the cast of this year’s show…’ and instantly, somebody would tweet back telling us that’s not the full cast, even though that’s exactly what we’ve just said. It’s quite frustrating at times but that’s part of the social media world.”

What is the magic formula that has made Qdos the world’s biggest pantomime producer?
“I don’t think there’s a magic formula. At its heart are people who have loved panto for such a long time; we are all panto enthusiasts. I’ve been doing it for twelve years and we are probably a mad bunch of people, but we are doing it because we love it. We’re also very small team really, the hub of the office. The core team is probably only made up of about twelve people and I think it’s that commitment and working with the people who we work with; we endeavour to get the best writers, the best artistes, the best stage management, special effects and so on… We work all year round and probably about eighteen months in advance, so we’re already planning for next year and the year beyond – so it’s quite crazy when the schedules come in for 2021 and 2022!”

Is paying the big cheques to the most popular stars just a case of balancing the books?
“It all depends. In terms of who’s going to be in the show, the production budget, the run length, size of house… It is very difficult balancing act in terms of what you can book and who do you put in where? We throw a lot of money at these productions, so they are all a huge endeavour, and let’s not forget we are a commercial theatre so we do need to make some money at the end of the day. But we really don’t do it for profit, we do it because we love it so much and we want the right people in the right roles in the right places.
“We do panto in Edinburgh at the King’s Theatre where, this year, we usually have three – but this year four – amazing Scottish actors. But if you put those same actors on here in Woking then I don’t think it would work; they’re are very well loved in their hometown where they’ve done it for like thirty or forty years and have massive appeal. Their show does bonkers figures at the box office, and they don’t even do anything massively different year on year, but people absolutely adore them.”

How excited were you to bring pantomime back to the London Palladium four years ago?
“Well, for us it was huge. It was a bit of a gamble, and we originally had the opportunity from Andrew Lloyd Webber to do it. That was the year we also took over ATG’s shows [from First Family] so, overnight, we went from doing twenty-four pantos to thirty-five. The whole thing was a leap and a challenge, but it paid off. The first one, I thought, was a brilliant production and we learnt a lot from it. We’ve now built on that year-on-year.”

Did you ever envisage Nigel Havers and other ‘regulars’ becoming such a favourite part of the Palladium’s new panto era?
“I don’t think we did. That is all the result of a natural bit of chemistry, and that core team – who we’re reuniting this year for Goldilocks and the Three Bears as well – just works; it’s the greatest formula.”

Professional pantomime productions tend to stick to the big – arguably predictable – half a dozen titles. So what is behind the thinking in bringing a different panto, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, to The Palladium this year?
“Yes, that title is a bit of a departure. We put it in Newcastle last year, where our managing director, Michael Harrison, directs and exec produces every single year. Again, Newcastle features a cast that wouldn’t necessarily work as well anywhere else; they always appear there and their local appeal is massive. So with a core cast like that you can gamble things a little bit do a bit of a departure from the usual Cinderellas or Aladdins. Goldilocks itself is a brilliant panto because it brings in a lot of ‘circus’ as well as panto and Vaudeville. The Palladium is the home of ‘Variety’, so we now have that core cast of Julian Clary, Paul O’Grady, Matt Baker from the one show, Nigel Havers, Paul Zerdin and Gary Wilmot all doing their usual panto stuff. But in addition we’ve also got these amazing illusionists and other acts I can’t really go into at the moment.
“Weirdly, you’d think there were some big egos in panto but, the truth is, there very rarely is. They usually do it because they love it, and they like to work for us so we tend to have quite a happy family everywhere.”

How much pressure is on you to find something new each year?
“There are certain routines that work really well and we move around a bit, but they’ve all been written and created by us anyway. So, because we have so many pantos it is possible to pick things up and move them into other venues. Since we acquired the ATG venues we can also now afford to be more innovative and bring new things to brand-new audiences. For instance, a couple of years ago, here in Woking for Robin Hood [one such ATG venue], we had a huge T-Rex that came stomping down the middle of the stage; that was something that has never been seen here before. This year in Aladdin the magic carpet does something very, very special – which I’m afraid I can’t go into either – but, with things like the big red London bus at the Palladium, I really don’t know how the Twins FX do it. They are phenomenal and I really don’t know where they get their ideas from.”

Who, in your mind, has been the biggest pantomime-casting revelation over the last ten years or so?
“I think last year, for us, Robert Lindsay was a huge coup. We obviously knew he was already a fantastic award-winning actor, but he was phenomenal. And he really got involved in developing a far from obvious interpretation of Captain Hook. He was also very happy to play up to his actor persona, but also to include some songs from Oliver! for instance and also mock himself a little bit. He carried the whole role off with real swagger and, I for one, was completely blown away by him.
“Also, at the Palladium last year, we knew Dawn French would be amazing but to have a comedy actress of her calibre do our pantomime was incredible.”