Is Panto Evolving or Is It Outdated?

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As the pantomime season comes to a close for another year I began to wonder if this traditional family show is still relevant or is it a desperately attempt to try and hold onto a tradition that should have been put to bed a long time ago?

For those who don’t know, pantomime originates from the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition mixed with the British ‘Music Hall’, which later became ‘Variety Theatre’. But over the years, while it has retained a certain format there seems to be a constant change for it to suit current style and fashion of music and theatre. Most pantos are loosely based around a well-known fairy tales, with plenty of dancing, audience participation and the traditional slapstick comedy thrown in, but does it really ever tell the titled story?

When a musical is reprised or revived it will always stick to the original score and the same with plays, the director will always stick to what is written and not completely changed just to suit the time of day or current styles and fashions of theatre. Yes the set and costume may be modernised this is done so much with Shakespeare today. It helps people understand the language and that it is relevant for the modern audience, but the scripts are always the same.

Whilst with pantomime the plot on which it based on seems to get lost more and more year on year. Granted the key characters are there, the dame, hero, princess and the clown, but the actual story of moving towards the wedding at the end seems to be more and more diluted each year.

In the professional productions the emphasis seems to be on the celebrities and their talents along with the latest technology of special effects, for the amateurs it seems to be more about the singing and the dancing for no other reason than to make a ‘fairy tale’ interesting and last 2 hours.

For me growing up pantomime was a comedy version of musical that had a high level of audience interaction and comedy. I would go away singing the traditional songs for days after seeing the production, but the music today from the amateur shows seems to be from the hit parade gone and the professionals seem to write songs just for that single show, never to be heard again.

Now people may argue that if the material is not updated then we will lose a whole generation to this unique family outing. Whist I get the basic need of the jokes to be updated, the music and script should surely remain? The songs and scripts of the best known musicals that have graced the West End of more than 30 years playing to the best part of full houses every night can be an example of that. So why can’t the same go for pantomime?

If the basic plot of the fairy tale continues to be diluted surely this performance will just become a variety show with a bigger than life set and actors dressed in stupid outfits. We have to remember that the youngest of our generations get smarter each year they are going to have heard the fairy tale long before they see the pantomime and when things don’t add up, what are they going to do when it comes to pantomime and their children in the future? They won’t take them because to them because was a lie.

As an industry we already have trouble keeping the interest of the younger generation, regional theatres are constantly battling to get children and teenagers through the door. The point is that what we show youngsters today will affect what the future generations come and see. So while this unique genre of entertainment that is rooted in our heritage and tradition we must always remain true to what we use as our baseline.