Michael Coveney: Let's celebrate panto

Christmas is fast approaching so our critic Michael Coveney gets into the festive spirit

Clive Rowe, Buttercup the cow, Debbie Kurup, and Kat B in Hackney Empire's Jack and the Beanstalk
Clive Rowe, Buttercup the cow, Debbie Kurup, and Kat B in Hackney Empire's Jack and the Beanstalk
© Perou

I haven’t hung up my stocking yet, but I’m getting in the mood. I usually reckon that the WhatsOnStage Awards nominations party in the Café de Paris in the first week of December is the starting gun for Christmas. But the lights in Regent Street are already aglow – though the best in the country are always in Stratford-upon-Avon – Elf is up and running at the Dominion and Clive Rowe opens as Dame Daisy Trot in Jack and the Beanstalk at the Hackney Empire on Saturday.

The point about panto– apart from celebrating the one genuine populist genre in the British theatre; oh yes, it is – is the audience and the venue. Hackney Empire is a brilliant panto venue, not just because of the vibrant, mixed ethnicity of the customers (second on decibel count level only to Stratford East) but because the building itself, a Frank Matcham masterpiece, embraces the noise, the ghost of Charlie Chaplin and other music hall greats. The very spirit of the kind of democratic popular entertainment that ended on television with the Billy Cotton Band Show and Morecambe and Wise.

Craig Revel Horwood as Captain Hook
Craig Revel Horwood as Captain Hook

I don’t want to see panto in a fringe theatre, or seasonal bonbons in a community hall or function room – though I shall make an honourable exception for the Henry Irving double-bill at the Park, London’s most attractive and welcoming neighbourhood theatre after the Almeida. I want to see big stars with panto in their bones leading the charge towards festive fraternity and flippancy in big shows that sparkle, with song sheets and fairy queens and smiling villagers and wicked barons and moth-eaten musicians in the pit.

The last thing I want is plays about child abuse, refugees, regime change and political upheaval. Though, now I think about it, all those boxes are ticked by Babes in the Wood, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Aladdin, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Dick Whittington; Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment has a lot to answer for, not least Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which should fit the Royal Exchange, Manchester, perfectly.

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You can bet your house or hovel on Sally Cookson finding unpleasant contemporary resonances in a new Sleeping Beauty at the Bristol Old Vic. And the National Theatre of Wales cannot possibly be reviving the dear dead days of the Victorian and music hall extravaganza with a collaboration between playwright Tim Price and Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys on The Insatiable, Inflatable Candylion in an indoor cricket school in Cardiff.

Theatre mavens can probably feel seasonably purist and right-on by checking out Patrick Barlow’s impressive seasonal double of Ben Hur (four actors and the story of Rome) at the Tricycle, Kilburn, and A Christmas Carol, starring Barlow’s old National Theatre of Brent associate, Jim Broadbent, at the Noel Coward. I’d probably head to both myself, though, if I had teenage daughters or even cousins to consider, I’d fork out for Matthew Bourne’s Matthew Bourne's Sleeping Beauty at Sadler’s Wells, or English National Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Coliseum; you can’t beat tutus, tantrums and Tchaikovsky at turkey-time.

But there is an important distinction to be made between seasonal shows – Slava's Snowshow, a storm of Russian clowning and visual effects, at the Royal Festival Hall, and Birmingham Rep’s delightful The Snowman, returning for the 19th year running to the Peacock in London – and pantomime proper or, rather, improper.

It all started when a male actor played the cook in Dick Whittington at Southwark Fair in 1731. As panto evolved, it incorporated ingredients of Aristophanic comedy, the Italian commedia dell’arte of Harlequin and Columbine and the clownish genius of Joseph Grimaldi – "the Michelangelo of buffoonery" – at Sadler’s Wells in the early 19th century.

If Charles Dickens invented the Victorian Christmas we still, more or less, celebrate, then he also put his imprimatur on "the ten thousand million delights of a pantomime" he enjoyed at Drury Lane. These are not much different from, though less spectacular than, the great "modern" pantomimes at the end of 19th century starring the likes of Dan Leno, the first legendary dame; panto was now spliced with the music hall in comedy turns, rhyming verse, popular song and, of course, the coming of age of the principal boy.

Simon Webbe, Christopher Biggins and Ben Nickless in Aladdin
Simon Webbe, Christopher Biggins and Ben Nickless in Aladdin

The dame has survived much better than the principal boy, the most significant this year probably being Roy Hudd, last of the old variety school, in Dick Whittington at Wilton’s Music Hall. But you can also relish Christopher Biggins as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at the Theatre Royal, Nottingham, and Fine Time Fontayne in Mother Goose at Oldham Coliseum. Julian Clary’s become a stylish panto performer, though not in drag; he stars as Slave of the Ring in the Birmingham Hippodrome's Aladdin this year and I predict rival types of grotesque from two Captain Hooks in Glasgow and High Wycombe, David Hasselhoff and Craig Revel Horwood.

I used to love the authentic Victorian burlesques in The Players, Charing Cross, but I love, too, the brash brouhaha of the modern panto, its pop songs, its light sabres, gleaming childish faces, shout-outs and singalongs, dance school routines, slapstick, walk-downs and painted backdrops.

And, above all, I love the deal with the audience, the direct communication and, in the figure of a Buttons in Cinderella or a Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, the late flourishing of the music hall cheeky chappie and personality comedian; I am not talking Michael McIntyre, but such megawatt peoples’ comics as Brian Conley, Buttons this year at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend (with Lesley Joseph as the Fairy Godmother), and Billy Pearce, the Conley of the North, in Jack and the Beanstalk at another favourite panto venue, the magnificent Bradford Alhambra.

Read our ultimate guide to Christmas here