Far from being a relic of the past, pantomimes are alive, kicking and taking on new blood, argues Mark Fisher
Earlier this year, I took a trip to Scarborough to check out the headquarters of the Qdos Entertainment empire. This is the organisation responsible for 21 pantomimes in the UK alone, not to mention a handful of theatres, a couple of talent agencies, 500 staff and a turnover of £50m.
Head along a corridor from the reception and you come to a gob-smackingly huge wardrobe. In this hangar-like space is a year-round operation involving the storage and maintenance of 15,000 costumes. It’s a treasure trove of multi-coloured Aladdin tunics and outrageous wigs. It takes another warehouse, the size of a supermarket, to store the sets.
While the company spends £10,000 a week on buying and repairing sets and costumes, Qdos is only one part of the pantomime market. In Scotland, it is responsible for just two: the show at the Edinburgh King’s (this year, Aladdin with old favourite Allan Stewart) and the one at His Majesty’s Aberdeen (Peter Pan with Alan Fletcher from Neighbours).
Last season’s six-week run of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in Edinburgh attracted 84,000 theatregoers, a remarkable feat given the competition from rival shows at the Playhouse, Festival Theatre, Royal Lyceum and smaller venues. When you take in Scotland as a whole, the figures are formidable.
At what other time of year would it be possible to see three versions of a show and for the coincidence to pass almost without comment? Yet, The Wizard of Oz – or some version of it – is being staged at the Pavilion and Citizens’ in Glasgow and Motherwell Theatre. Doubtless all will do great box office.
And although the days of music hall, which produced a generation of panto stars, have long gone, there is firm evidence of young blood rejuvenating the form regardless. If there was anyone who considered Karen Dunbar as just some face off the telly, they would have had their preconceptions shattered by her dazzling panto debut in last year’s Sleeping Beauty at the Glasgow King’s. Her turn as Nanny Begood gave her co-star, the hitherto unassailable Gerard Kelly, a run for his money, so perfectly attuned was she to the feel-good spirit of the show. The prospect of her return in Cinderella (pictured, above) along with Kelly and the tremendous Andy Gray, previously a stalwart of the Edinburgh King’s, is scintillating.
Neither is such young blood the prerogative of the big city pantos. I didn’t see Cinderella at Stirling’s MacRobert Arts Centre last year, but everyone said author and ugly sister Johnny McKnight was exceptional. The man more normally found behind the wheel of Glasgow’s Random Accomplice is not only back in Stirling this year with Mother Goose, but his Cinderella is being given a second production at the Byre, St Andrews. He’s certainly one to watch.
All of which is evidence that the panto and Christmas show is in resilient shape, able to embrace new influences while remaining hugely popular, not to mention commercially lucrative. The only question now is who’ll come up with the best Barack Obama gag and will it be as funny as the credit crunch quips?
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