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01 October 2023

British panto brings a contemporary twist to fairytales


A figure styled as Donald Trump is booed off stage by a rowdy audience enjoying the thrills of British pantomime, bringing a contemporary twist to traditional fairytales.
Up and down the country over the festive season, children and adults alike flock to theatres to watch a "panto" -- complete with princesses, political jibes and innuendo.

Audiences attending pantomimes instinctively know when to yell out stock phrases such as "He's behind you!", while newcomers quickly learn when to join the collective hissing or cheering.

"Lots of Americans who come in are just wide-eyed and can't believe it! And by the end they've got it, they're joining in too," said Susie McKenna, director and actor who plays the Wicked Stepmother in "Cinderella" at London's Hackney Empire theatre.

"It is definitely unique, it is definitely quintessentially British."

Pantomime traces its origins to the 16th-century "Commedia dell'Arte", a form of Italian street theatre which travelled to Britain, according to London's Victoria and Albert Museum.

It was transformed through London theatres, initially with music but no dialogue, morphing into the familiar Christmas panto during the Victorian era.

Pantomimes are now staged at theatres across Britain, often starring a local celebrity and actors of all ages.

In Hackney, McKenna has been writing the annual festive show for nearly 20 years and has become accustomed to another tradition -- weaving in references to recent events.

"This year because we were talking about the travesty that is Brexit, we have a character who's Italian who's going to be deported," she lamented, reflecting the views of the largely pro-EU neighbourhood.

Tax havens and fake news also get a mention, while the brief appearance of Trump at the royal ball -- which Cinderella flees at midnight -- speaks to the ongoing saga of the US president's planned state visit to the UK.

"So many people have said to me it was such a release, to feel that they could boo him," said McKenna, recalling audiences' delight when Trump is banished from the ball.

For Darren Hart, who plays Cinderella's best friend Buttons, contemporary audiences are open to a recap of news alongside their musical theatre.

"That's how fast society is now and how fast we are with our media," he said.

"Referencing social culture but having our twist on it, and allowing the audience to debate it more afterwards."

- Weinstein scandal -

While pantomimes fill big theatres, new spaces are also tackling the genre with one London show this season being performed in a converted caravan.

"Caravantomime" takes on the fairytale "Sleeping Beauty", whose star joins forces with a lost Cinderella to change both their destinies.

"With a bit of sense of humour, we question what's going on in certain fairytales, and we absolutely bring in what's been happening," said Robin Steegman, creator of the 20-minute show she describes as an "anti-panto".

Steegman gives her heroines the agency they lack in their original stories, while also making direct reference to disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein -- who is facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, which he denies.

"Sexual harassment, I think, especially in this climate, it's good to bring it to life that it happens in many situations," she said.

But although Steegman has overhauled the fairytale ending, her play has kept true to panto form with its wider cultural references and men in drag.

- Breaking down barriers -

As well established as the pantomime horse -- played by two actors inside a furry costume -- the pantomime sees a male actor take on a lead female role.

While men and boys have played female parts for centuries in Britain, largely due to societal restrictions placed on women, Hart believes that continuing to bend the gender norms can help children become more open-minded as they grow up.

"What it allows them to do is to break down those barriers that may form later on in life and the questions they may ask. Because a lot of children don't question it," he said.

But beyond the celebrated traditions on stage, the key to a successful panto is the audience.

"It's different to normal theatre, because normal theatre is like watching a TV boxset but it's live," said Aisha Jawando, who plays Cinderella at Hackney Empire.

"Panto is very inclusive. We want to hear people making noise," she added.

Hart agreed, rolling off a list of pantomime essentials including a good script and a great dame.

"The last thing is an audience that is willing to have a good time. There's no point coming to a panto expecting to just sit there and watch it, it's a waste!"