Last week I made the admission that I don’t like pantomimes. Let me qualify that.
What I don’t enjoy is the awkward feeling I experience when shouting out loud in a theatre, or of getting involved in a sing-along. The level of audience participation required for one to truly enjoy a pantomime is something that makes me squirm.
I know, as I mentioned last week, I am not alone because I read it in correspondence from Yorkshire Post readers of a similar disposition. That said, there are literally tens of thousands who will over the coming weeks, or have already, found themselves waking up with voices hoarse from a merry night at the theatre of ‘he’s behind you’ and for those people I write this article.
Let’s be honest, I’m being something of a pre-rehabilitation Scrooge with all of this. Is there anything better than gathering together to commune at the altar of pantomime, the weird creature that literally only exists in these isles? If the answer for you is ‘why no, of course not’, this is specifically for you.
One thing our region is really good at is the big, family panto. York Theatre Royal is the most traditional example and Bradford Alhambra the most spectacular example of the form to audiences for several decades. I’ll come to the Alhambra, but the biggest story this year is that for the first time in 40 years Berwick Kaler’s clarion call of ‘me babbies, me bairns’ won’t ring around York Theatre Royal. Mr Kaler is behind the scenes of the panto, he is the writer and co-director of Sleeping Beauty, but this year his co-director is York-based actor and director Matt Aston.
One panto fixture who’s not going anywhere is Billy Pearce. The Bradford king of panto hits year 21 in 2019, an impressive record that shows no signs of stopping. Watching Pearce in last year’s show, even I was close to being convinced of the beauty of this art form. Like an old Vaudevillian he can work that enormous stage like few I’ve seen.
He’s joined this year in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by former Steps member Faye Tozer and fellow comedian Paul Chuckle. The story this year is – entirely irrelevant. As it is every year. This is the Bradford Alhambra panto which boasts it is the biggest and longest running in the country and the tens of thousands who see it each year will expect to see impressive theatrical wizardry, stunts and big set pieces. They will get all of those and it will be expertly held together by Pearce.
Down the road in Huddersfield, things are a little more lo-fi but no less loved, as the Lawrence Batley Theatre sees its fourth annual panto brought to the stage by a brilliant team. Joyce Branagh and Andrew Pollard first teamed up over five years ago to try and convince LBT to produce its own pantomime with the two of them at the helm as director and writer. It’s been an impressive partnership and has proved hugely popular. It’s little surprise. Branagh and Pollard really know their stuff. Branagh has written four pantos and is the co-author of the book Creating Pantomime, while Pollard specialises in writing pantomimes for families; he regularly writes, directs and appears as the Dame in Greenwich Theatre’s pantomime. This year they are presenting Sleeping Beauty.
The Halifax Victoria Theatre is staging a traditional pantomime with this year’s offering Beauty and the Beast and similarly, down in Sheffield at the city’s Lyceum theatre there is a traditional panto – Cinderella – with a cast that includes Strictly favourite Joanne Clifton. In Bradford, the plucky Playhouse is staging Cinderella from December 21-30. In Wakefield the Theatre Royal’s in-house produced panto is an old favourite, Jack and the Beanstalk, which I believe was the show the last time I saw the pantomime at this venue. Wakefield’s favourite dame Chris Hannon will return and coming back for a third year is Chris Chilton, appearing as meek and mild monarch King Peregrine. If you’re looking for something a little different, two options. First, there is the Rock n Roll Panto at Leeds City Varieties. Red Riding Hood is this year’s title and if a panto with a more adult slant is what you’re after, this is it.
Over in Hull the fascinating Middle Child will also be staging a ‘rock and roll’ panto with its version of The Little Mermaid. This year’s production is written and directed by artistic director, Paul Smith, and relocates the story to the River Humber, where Ariel must save the seafaring Steve Prince from the clutches of Ursula the Sea Witch.
The award-winning Hull company have performed a panto every year since 2012 and their riotous takes on classic fairy tales have garnered a huge following in the city.
So, literally, something for everyone. Even those who claim to not like pantos.
Pictures: Pamela Raith, Ant Robling