Mark Drinkwater scours pantomime posters from around the country and discovers a host of productions portraying social care themes during the festive season
It’s behind you! It’s behind you! Actually, it’s in front of you, and it’s panto season. The most enduring appeal of pantomime is that there is something for all the family. The sheer number of faded television stars treading the boards this Christmas means that any show is guaranteed to give you and the visiting in-laws your very own reminiscence-therapy session.
The economic slump provides fertile material for pantos this year. At the Birmingham Hippodrome, singer and Dr Who star John Barrowman leads a cast of merry men in Robin Hood, showing that chancellor Alistair Darling is not the only one with wealth redistribution on his mind.
Dick Whittington, the original economic migrant escaping poverty, makes an appearance at Llandudno’s Venue Cymru with John Challis – Boycie from Only Fools and Horses – playing King “Dirty” Rat.
Social workers visiting Jack and the Beanstalk at Darlington’s Civic Theatre will feel for the young man driven to a life of petty thieving to escape destitution. Though save some of your sympathy for the lowly cast member who lost the toss to become the back end of the cow.
Toby Frow’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol moves the story to Bristol and examines Dickens’ themes of social injustice and poverty. The show features Tiny Tim, the relentlessly optimistic “invalid” son of Bob Cratchit, and the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who seeks redemption. If only social work always resulted in such happy transformations.
Rehabilitation is a key element of panto revitalising the flagging careers of Z-listers and faded Hollywood stars. After all, Christmas is a time for charity. In Milton Keynes, Henry “The Fonz” Winkler plays the dastardly Captain Hook and in doing so does little to undermine the disabled-person-as-baddie stereotype. He’s appearing in Peter Pan, the swashbuckling tale featuring the Lost Boys – JM Barie’s original feral children. Louisa Lytton from The Bill plays the boy who never grew up. Clearly this “lad” has both gender and developmental issues to deal with.
Paul Michael Glaser, Starsky from Starsky and Hutch, trades California for sunny, er, Sunderland. He can be found playing the panto baddie Abanazar in Aladdin a role that will do little to improve local Anglo-Arab relations.
Glaser’s former co-star Antonio Fargas, better known as Huggy Bear, also makes his panto debut in Snow White at the Broadway Theatre, Catford. Snow White is, of course, one of the more controversial pantos – particularly when productions use non-dwarf helpers.
If you have very young children, there are numerous excellent travelling puppet shows. Pick of the bunch is Garlic Theatre’s Old Mother Hubbard. Cash-strapped Ma Hubbard looks in the cupboard only to find it bare. Glove puppets, singing teapots and musical treats explain all. Also worth a mention is Krazy Kat Theatre Company’s Petrushka. Directed by deaf sign-songstress Caroline Parker, the show features integrated sign language throughout.
Many of the plots in today’s pantomimes derive from the Grimm fairytales. Cinderella is the classic tale of slave labour and a wicked step-parent. In the Bristol Hippodrome production, acting legend Mickey Rooney plays Baron Hardup. He will appear alongside former and current Eastenders Michelle Collins and Bobby Davro. Cinderella certainly seems to be the preferred choice for Tinseltown’s refugees as Steve Guttenburg, star of the Police Academy films, also appears in the pumpkin-filled panto in Bromley.
North of the border, the Scottish Youth Theatre gives a new twist to another Grimm tale. Its Sleeping Beauty takes children on a magical journey into Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Our narcoleptic protagonist also makes an appearance at the Unicorn Theatre, London, in Rosy Fordham’s reworking that leads Beauty on a race through time to meet the right prince.
So there you have it: slapstick, buffoonery, innuendo, family fallouts and the triumph of good over evil. Perhaps not so different from a day at the office. But unlike being at work, it’s the one time of year when the booing isn’t being directed at social workers.
To find out what’s on near you visit www.bigpantoguide.co.uk
This article appears in the 11 December issue under the headline “Panto with a familiar feel”