Craig Revel Horwood and other Hampshire pantomime stars of 2017

PUBLISHED: 16:16 11 December 2017 | UPDATED: 12:26 02 January 2018

Craig Revel Horwood stars in Snow White & the Seven Dwarves at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton (Photo: Robin Jones/Digital South)

Craig Revel Horwood stars in Snow White & the Seven Dwarves at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton (Photo: Robin Jones/Digital South)

The Digital South Ltd

As much a part of Christmas as presents under the tree, mince pies, turkey and sprouts, Emma Caulton asks what makes the traditional panto so special

Panto past

Pantomime is considered quintessentially and eccentrically British, yet this Christmas family favourite is an amalgamation of theatrical traditions and has evolved over the centuries from a variety of countries and sources, among them Elizabethan masques, 16th century Italian street theatre and 18th century harlequinades. These performances featured elements we still recognise in panto today: stock characters, acrobatics, chases, magic and physical humour.

The panto dame emerged in the era of Victorian music hall. At this time, stars from variety introduced topical comedy and popular songs, and scripts became themed around children’s stories and fairy tales, such as Peter Pan and Cinderella.

Although plots are relatively simple, the conceits aren’t. For example, panto was always ahead of popular culture in terms of transgender issues - with a typical panto including a man dressed as a woman with a son who is a girl dressed as a boy who falls in love with a girl who is a girl. The likes of Barbara Windsor and Anita Harris have played the role of ‘principal boy’, however currently it tends to be played by a man as fashions change. Panto now usually stars personalities from television and sports and is an essential part of a traditional Christmas experience.

Village hall am-dram or lavish city theatre spectacle, it is often children’s first experience of live theatre, and their chance to relish silly costumes, slapstick and audience participation, with everyone encouraged to boo the villain, argue with the dame and warn the ‘principal boy’, “He’s behind you!”.

What do stars enjoy about panto?

“Panto is hard work, but it’s so much fun that the payoff you get makes it all worthwhile,” says Craig Revel Horwood, playing the Wicked Queen at The Mayflower, Southampton, but more familiar as the judge we love to argue with on Strictly Come Dancing. “We have a very intensive rehearsal period to get the show ready, but once you’re out there and see so many families, often with young children enjoying live theatre for the first time and having a great time, it makes our job so worthwhile. It’s also a lot of fun getting back out there on stage and showing people the man (or in my case the woman) behind the Strictly panel.”

Clive Mantle, familiar as consultant Mike Barratt in Casualty and Holby City, Dawn French’s love interest in The Vicar of Dibley and Lord Greatjon Umber in Game of Thrones, is playing the baddie in Aladdin at Ferneham Hall, Fareham. He laughs: “I love working and I hate winter, so pantomime is the perfect answer. I’m enclosed in a warm theatre with children booing me and I get paid. Hurrah! In the pantos I’ve been in, I’ve only ever played Abanazaar so I have no knowledge of what it’s like being loved at Christmas time!”

Julian Eardley is playing the dame, Mrs Smee, in Peter Pan, at Theatre Royal Winchester. He says: “The wonder of panto is the uniqueness of every performance. The final character of every show is the audience. How they react alters each performance, so every show becomes tailormade for them, be they 400 excited school children in a morning matinee or a full house of innuendo-loving adults at an evening show.”

Melinda Messenger is Fairy Sparkle in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Kings Theatre, Southsea. She says: “I love panto: meeting a new team and working together to give families a magical day out at the theatre. I get so much pleasure from the audience participation; it’s exhausting, but so worthwhile.”

Jamie Papanicolaou, playing Will in Beauty and the Beast at New Kings Theatre, Portsmouth, adds: “To be able to interact with an audience and improvise around whatever comes up each performance is pretty liberating.”

Gary Turner is playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at The Anvil. He agrees: “What I enjoy is the audience reaction, and having a good time onstage. Hook is my favourite panto role. He’s the most interesting, complicated and stylish of all panto villains. This will be my 10th time playing him.”

What are stars’ funniest moments?

Craig Revel Horwood says: “I’m working with The Chuckle Brothers this year so if you ask me at the end of the run I’m sure I’ll have some new stories for you. They’re going to keep me on my toes this year, I can already tell. I’ve done panto for the last eight years and in that time there have been all sorts of things go wrong, but that’s part of the fun of panto and audiences expect that. I get heckled a lot, which I love, and as the villain I get to talk back and respond to them, which is always funny. Once I finished my big number and looked out to an entire row holding up paddles with 10s on them - that was hilarious!”

Clive Mantle recalls: “I did a panto with the late, great Chris Harris as the dame who, if he forgot the words to his opening song, would make up brilliant alternatives on the spot making the rest of us howl with laughter!”

Julian Eardley adds: “Heavens, I have had all sorts happen during panto runs. I have fallen over in the middle of a song, my skirt has come off on more than one occasion, I once lost my wig mid-scene and, of course, sometimes the lines just come out of your mouth incorrectly. The lovely thing with panto is being able to rope the mistakes into the show and revel in not hiding them from the audience. If you are quick and honest, you can create some splendid, unplanned laughter.

Melinda Messenger recalls: “The most embarrassing moment still makes me laugh and shudder in one go. I was caught out missing my cue because I had become engrossed in a handheld computer game with one of the dancers. Everyone on stage had to make up an entirely new scene and when I was finally pushed on stage I had to improvise as well and go along with it.”

Jamie Papanicolaou says: “My funniest panto moment was when I was playing Peter Pan. I was in a harness flying above the audience when I lost control and got stuck upside down. Because of the safety issue, I had to hang upside down above the audience for an entire song!”

Gary Turner relates a similar incident when he was Jack in Jumping Jack Flash. “To start the second-half I abseiled onto stage down the beanstalk! This particular show the rope knotted in mid-air as it was thrown down and I didn’t notice ‘til it was too late. I was left dangling 10ft above the stage unable to go up or down! Eventually the actress playing Jill came on and asked me what I was doing, ‘Oh, just hanging around I replied’. Everyone was laughing as stage management came on with a step ladder to get me down...”

Panto’s enduring appeal and value

Behind the scenes, stage crew and management enjoy panto season, too.

“Pantomime is fun, funny escapism that brings together families at a special time of year,” explains Michael Harrison, managing director of Qdos Entertainment and executive producer of the Mayflower’s pantomime. “Pantomime is still as popular as ever as it continues the great British tradition of creating live entertainment for audiences of all ages. It honours traditions of the past while managing to be relevant to today’s audience. Mayflower Theatre is already a number one touring venue and hugely successful theatre, but for others, pantomime allows regional theatres to thrive, and for many it’s their longest running show of the year.”

Deryck Newland, chief executive of Theatre Royal Winchester, says: “Panto is idiosyncratic and nostalgic, harking back to the good old days of British music hall and variety theatre.

“It is essentially a participatory art form and people, especially the British, love to come together to boo the baddie and support the underdog. Like all the best communal occasions it is, essentially, ritualistic: We know what is going to happen, we relish the very particular rules of panto and we can’t wait to be a participant in the game alongside our friends and family, not just a passive observer.

“Panto transcends social class and cultural stereotyping and is genuinely communal.

“As we produce it ourselves it allows us to invest the money we make back into a diverse programme across the rest of the year which we would not otherwise be able to afford.

Armand Gerrard, creative director, Kings Theatre, Southsea, says the enduring appeal is: “Familiarity and the reassurance of a show that the whole family will enjoy. Panto is often a child’s first introduction to the magical world of theatre and at the Kings Theatre, we relish the responsibility of sewing this seed.”

Christine Bradwell, chief executive, Anvil Arts, says: “The enduring appeal is the baddie always gets their come uppance and the good side always triumphs.

“We look forward to this time of year because we have the actors in the building for rehearsals and throughout the run, and we get to see lots of people enjoying themselves.”

Edward Haversham, marketing and box office manager, Princes Hall, Aldershot, adds: “It brings a lot of people into the theatre who might never have seen a live show before and it’s a great way to introduce children to the magic of live theatre. We have all the cast, extra crew and staff in every day so our normally small team swells; it’s wonderful to have so many people in the building.”

Scott Ramsay, chief executive of New Theatre Royal Portsmouth and director of Beauty and the Beast, says, “Pantomime has endured through the decades, adapting to the trends of the day. It is valued as a strong draw for new theatre-goers to venues, and is a significant income generator. Without it, many venues could not survive. Pantos also provide a significant amount of work for theatre artists.

“We look forward to panto season as it allows us to create a different level of interaction with our audiences, across all ages. Bringing a cast and panto team together is like creating a special family for the Christmas season.” 


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