Oh yes it is! Easter Panto is a hit

Find out how the much loved Christmas theatre genre became an Easter tradition – and enter our competition to win a family ticket to Beauty & the Beast at Croydon's Fairfield Halls this Easter

Richard Kay in 'Sweetie and the Beast', 2018. Pic: Richard Kay

What do men dressed as women, risqué humour and singalongs have in common? They are all key ingredients to the most beloved form of theatre in the UK: pantomimes.

This quirky theatre genre took inspiration from the 16th century Commedia dell’Arte in Renaissance Italy, based on the comedic portrayal of archetypical characters. By the 18th century, stock characters such as comic servant Harlequin made their debut on the British stage and slowly developed into what we know today as pantomime, traditionally performed during the Christmas period to an audience of mainly children and families.

Political cartoon showing a harlequin performing in a pantomime whilst a spectator sleeps. ‘St. Stephens pantomime, the church in danger.’ Pic: Wellcome Images

“I went every year as part of tradition with my family to the York pantomime,” says York-based Richard Kay, who has been a pantomime writer and performer for 25 years. “In fact, I think it was the 27th of December every year.”

Pantomimes used to be performed at other times of the year, with Cinderella being the very first Easter pantomime when it was performed at Covent Garden in 1820. However, it is said that David Garrick, who managed Drury Lane Theatre in the early 1800s, deeply disliked pantomimes and attempted to stop them. Once he realised how much profit the new genre brought the theatre, Garrick decided to produce pantos just over Christmas as a compromise, and that’s how the Christmas tradition began.

In the past few decades, Easter pantomimes have gradually become more common again, but this trend intensified after coronavirus put an end to the 2020 panto season. Some producers scheduled an Easter production rather than wait for the next Christmas.

Kay says that a good pantomime keeps the traditional elements: “You have the audience participation, you have slapstick routines, you have your song and dance routines, you usually have some technical scene, be it 3D, or some projection, or ultraviolent scene.”

“[Pantomimes] have very specific character types,” says Kay. “They’ll have a dame role that became popular in the 1800s, a comic – who’s usually the son or sidekick to the dame – a villain, a good fairy, a principal boy and a principal girl – traditionally both are played by women, but that’s changing a bit.”

In addition, they are usually based on a fairytale – traditionally Mother Goose, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Dick Whittington, Babes in the Wood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast. So long as pantomimes stick to these general rules, says Kay, they can play around with “a relevance to time and space”.

Cinderella, a Wren Officers’ Christmas Pantomime. 24 December 1942, Greenock. Pic: Picryl.

“It’s relevant to the current time and current thinking but, more specifically, the popular culture of that particular year,” he explains, “so you can have topical jokes.” “A good panto is relevant to the place and the venue and the town, the locality, the cultures who are well known in the area,” he says.

“Panto is such a well-known, established genre that you have the ability, with that structure to expand out and try different things, like a Panto mashup or an Easter Panto or a Halloween-related Panto.”

Pantomimes represent one of the greatest sources of revenue for theatre across the UK, and the forced cancellation of panto season during the pandemic cost the theatre industry over $90m in lost revenue, according to The Stage. “You know why pantomime is becoming a thing at Easter?” says Kay. “Theatres are thinking, ‘How can we capitalise on this love of Pantomime so that they don’t just come at Christmas?’ It’s the big earner for the year and [theatres] expect to make a loss on a lot of other shows. So long as the pantomime did alright, then that’s fine,” says Kay.

“British theatregoers like routine,” he adds. “It was part of the tradition of Christmas to go to the pantomime, and it still is for many families. And you get an awful lot of British families who will go to the theatre once a year to see panto. They won’t go any other time.

“It means that theatres really need to put a lot of weight on their pantomimes. I’m sure a lot of London theatres need the pantomimes to keep themselves financially afloat.”

Barney Harwood, who’ll be performing as Gaston in Beauty & the Beast by touring company Enchanted Entertainment in Croydon, says that pantomimes aren’t necessarily created with the purpose of going on stage during Easter.

Pic: Enchanted Entertainment

“Pantomimes now run for about four or five weeks, but back in the day, like 25 years ago, [producers] used to do 16/17 week runs, and now they’ve kind of split them into two, otherwise all the cast would die from exhaustion,” he says. “We now have Christmas and Easter [pantomimes], but it’s technically one big run.”

I’ll be eating a lot of chocolate in my dressing room, but apart from that, [Beauty & the Beast] is not really an Easter story,” adds Harwood. “It’s just another chance for people to go and see another show at a different time of year apart from Christmas.”

Co-star Steve Royle, performing as Silly Billy, says that a lot of people have too much going on at Christmas and, by the time the New Year comes, most pantomimes have finished: “[People] think, ‘Oh, we didn’t get to see a pantomime this year, we missed out at Christmas, let’s go to Easter.’”

Harwood says, “It doesn’t matter what age you are, whether you’re eight or 88. You will have as much fun as the next person next to you, and pantomime is unique for that.”

Beauty & the Beast is at Fairfield Halls, Croydon on April 6, as part of a national tour. ELL has one family ticket (two parents and two children/one parent and three children) for the 6pm show to give away. For the chance to win this family ticket, follow ELL on Instagram and X, like and share these posts (Instagram & X) and write “Oh yes it is!” and your full name in the comment section on both social media to double your chances. The winner chosen at random will be announced on March 27 at 6pm.

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

Leave a Reply