I have often written in this column about the struggle that theatres face to survive in the wake of reducing funding, the search for new audiences, the difficulty in competing in the crowded market-place of London – but despite all that, one theatrical tradition seems to be in no risk at all of fading away.
Pantomime, the British tradition of transforming fairy tales into live family entertainment using a unique blend of music hall variety and commedia dell’arte, remains the anomaly that keeps some theatres going for the rest of the year and that brings in audiences who never usually go to the theatre. As we prepare to start rehearsal for our own pantomime, I spoke to writer, director and dame Andrew Pollard, hailed as one of the country’s finest pantomime practitioners, to discover what it is that keeps pantomime alive year after year.
“Pantomime is special because it encompasses so much” said Andrew. “Singing, dance, drama, spectacle and verbal and visual comedy. It is uniquely British and has such a rich history. I think its appeal is in its ability to adapt to the times yet somehow stay familiar. The songs reflect current trends, there are gags reflecting what’s happened in the year but at the same time the stock characters and plots follow traditional patterns and the slapstick comedy is as old as the hills. People take comfort in the familiar and in troubled times, this becomes appealing. It’s also to do with family tradition. If you are taken to Panto as a kid, you’re likely to want to take your kids to one too. It is a show where all the family can come and enjoy it together – which is very rare.”
The tradition has evolved over the years to include appearances in anything from walk-on to leading roles by television celebrities (not always actors), but that is something we have never done at Greenwich. “Pantomimes with stars are just different beasts” Andrew continued. “No less good – just different. The Dame often takes a back seat in these shows simply because there are fewer star names who can or are willing to play this part. I think in non-celebrity pantos, the Dame still rules the roost. She certainly does at Greenwich!”
Most theatres stick to the same small list of pantomime titles – Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and the others – but at Greenwich we are proud to buck the trend a bit and take on a few lesser known titles every so often. This year, it’s the turn of Robinson Crusoe.
“Robinson Crusoe used to be a very popular Panto title but like many has somehow dropped out of the canon of Panto titles. Actually it is a great adventure yarn – and we’ve given it a few new twists. Audiences can expect our usual mix of song, spectacle and slapstick. We have a terrifically strong and diverse cast this year – many returnees including Anthony Spargo and Lizzy Dive who made a great pair of Ugly Sisters last year. They are in very different roles this year but Anthony is still around as the Baddie. Also, I am returning to my Dame role. I had a year off last year but I missed it and can’t wait to come back!”
James Haddrell is the Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre.
Robinson Crusoe and the Search for the Pirate Gold by Andrew Pollard opens on Friday 23 November.