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Catherine Love: The power of panto

Love them or loathe them, Christmas shows offer a rare opportunity to get new audiences enthusiastic about the possibilities of theatre

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Deep Woods, Dark Snow at Northern Stage

So, it's panto season again (oh no it isn't! etc). And even if cries of "he's behind you" send a shudder down your spine and a groan to your lips, it's tough to avoid this most ubiquitous of festive entertainments. But, love it or loathe it, it's doubtless that the pantomime occupies a unique – and arguably essential – place in the makeup of British theatre.

In his guest blog about the long tradition of the panto dame, Eric Potts puts the joy of the role down to the ability to turn children (and a good few adults) into children again; it's the one time of the year when silliness is positively encouraged, and performers like Potts don't take that encouragement lightly. Having interviewed a good few panto veterans in previous festive seasons, what always strikes me is the rhetoric of responsibility. Those who come back to do Christmas shows year after year after year are acutely aware that for many audience members this is their one annual trip to the theatre – and quite possibly their first. Creating a good experience, then, is crucial.

The same goes for the many festive alternatives that have sprung up across the country in recent years, offering family friendly theatre experiences without all the trappings of panto. This Christmas offers the RSC's new version of Peter Pan, a fresh twist on The Nutcracker at Southampton's Nuffield Theatre and the Bristol Old Vic's The Little Mermaid, to name just a few. These projects also increasingly attract established theatremakers with strong reputations; the three shows mentioned, for example, are written by playwrights Ella Hickson, Hattie Naylor and Joel Horwood respectively.

Another of this year's alternative offerings is Northern Stage's Dark Woods, Deep Snow, which gets to the very heart of what we look for in Christmas shows by concentrating on our love of storytelling. While I was chatting to some of the creative team behind Northern Stage's show recently, they too acknowledged the responsibility they have and the precious opportunity that is offered to them through the familiar format of the Christmas show. If they can hook in audiences during the festive season, they might just come back throughout the rest of the year.

As well as offering a chance to get new audiences enthusiastic about theatre, what pantos and other Christmas shows are fairly unusual in attracting is an audience of all ages. Increasingly, we live in a society where different generations rarely socialise together and the spectrum of family activities is shrinking, making such events more vital than ever. The "family" label is often used dismissively, but there's a delicate skill in crafting a piece of theatre that operates simultaneously on a number of levels. When done successfully, as in a show like Matilda, the sophistication is such that it slips past unnoticed in the giddy thrill of watching.

Like so many theatregoers, my first time inside an auditorium was for a pantomime. Over two decades later, I'll be going back again for more this year, to groan and giggle at the Lyric Hammersmith's latest offering. Yes, there are bad gags, achingly familiar tropes and blinding quantities of glitter. But at their best, pantos and other Christmas shows alike can offer imagination, magic and a truly communal experience. And isn't that what theatre is about?