There are few compensations for living through a British winter. One of them is the traditional Christmas pantomime.
In towns and cities up and down the land, producers compete with each other for the stories and celebrities that will ensure boisterous houses in theatres from November to January every year.
So You Think You Can Dance judge Bonnie Lythgoe, who grew up in London, loves panto and believes interest in it can be re-ignited in Australia. “Pantomime was my first time in a theatre. I was three years old and I remember it to this day,” she says. “Every time I come to Sydney we see great shows like Mary Poppins and Wicked but it’s very expensive to take the whole family and they aren’t the kinds of shows where kids can get excited and join in. In a panto, they’re encouraged to shout out, cheer the goodies and boo the baddies. It’s like taking away the ‘fourth wall’. The audience is absolutely part of the show.”
Pantomime has roots stretching back to the Middle Ages and beyond, but the form we see today is a 19th-century invention. As in England, pantomimes were hugely popular in Australia before World War I, though the coming of movies quickly undermined their mass appeal. Producers countered with ever more lavish shows featuring novelty acts and ballet sequences. As a result, they became financially risky and the pantomime as popular entertainment died a slow death here.
There was an attempt to revive panto in Sydney during the mid-1990s, says theatrical producer John Frost, but it didn’t work. “There were big imported productions from England but with local stars, but they were financially disastrous,” he says. “In Britain they can recycle sets between theatres and there are 30 or 40 shows going around and around, but you can’t do that here. And there’s a sense here that panto is a bit uncool. In Australia, the family musicals like Annie and Mary Poppins and Grease have replaced them.”
Lythgoe is undeterred. The producer is convinced Australian children will love them – and is putting on Snow White – Winter Family Musicalto test her theory.
“I’m taking a huge gamble here but I took Cinderella and Aladdin to America, where they know nothing about pantomime at all, and had a very big success with it,” she says. “If you can crack it there, you can crack it anywhere. If I break even on this show, I would love to bring Aladdin or Peter Pan and rotate four or five pantos around the country. I think in your winter you all need something to go to and look forward to.”
One of the big drawcards, British pop legend Sir Cliff Richard, will appear in Snow White as a pre-recorded image. He is the “enchanted” or good mirror. Radio host Kyle Sandilands appears as the “disgruntled” or bad mirror.
Sir Cliff has been starring in pantos since the 1960s. “It’s always great fun,” he says. “I think there is a great freedom in pantomimes. Comics can ad-lib and it doesn’t matter if the cast can be seen having fun; in fact the audience participates more readily if they do.”
Sandilands says he’s never seen a pantomime before and is glad he wasn’t asked to “be a Hugh Jackman-type tap dancing around the stage”.
“This is all new for me,” he says. “I’m sure it will work in Australia. Audience interaction is something Aussies want to do but usually are not allowed to do. People, particularly kids, want to yell out what they think when they go to plays. The audience interacting with the cast will be great.”
But don’t worry if you’re unfamiliar with panto – this beginner’s guide covers all its essentials.
A fairy story
Many of the traditional pantomime stories date back to the early years of the 19th century. Cinderella was first performed as a panto in 1804 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Its success spawned Sleeping Beauty (1806), Mother Goose (1806), Dick Whittington (1814), Puss in Boots (1817) and Jack and the Beanstalk (1819). Not all pantomimes date to that period, however. Robin Hood, Peter Pan and Babes in the Wood are 20th-century inventions. Snow White didn’t exist as a pantomime until after the release of Walt Disney’s animated film in 1934.
“Everybody wants those lovely magical fairy stories when there is so much awful stuff going on in the world,” Lythgoe says. “You have to start with a good story.”
The tradition of a woman playing the part of the “principal boy” dates back to the earliest days of panto and by the 1880s, the hero role was always played by a woman. That tradition has eroded over time but the Brits still love a man in a dress playing The Dame. “I always hated the male roles played by women,” Lythgoe admits. “I want to see the right gender. But I do love a good Dame. It’s a warm, friendly character and always played by a man. That is one tradition I will always keep. If I bring Aladdin here next year, Widow Twanky will be played by a man, no question.”
The British panto circuit has come to the rescue of countless actors and ageing pop stars. More recently, it’s seen as a smart career move for Aussie soap stars. A stint on Neighbours is almost a guarantee of work in Britain at Christmas time and it’s very well paid, says Frost. “A big name can earn thousands and tens of thousands of pounds a week. But they are worked pretty hard. They do 12 or more shows a week.” Lythgoe’s Snow White features a cast of local luminaries including James Rees (Jimmy Giggle of the ABC TV show Giggle & Hoot), Peter Everett (the host of Ready Steady Cook), Sandilands and Magda Szubanski.
“A panto doesn’t have to be literally star-studded but the audience is always looking forward to seeing somebody they recognise,” Lythgoe says.
Sir Cliff says he doesn’t think pop stars are essential. “But they do help bring in publicity and they help the box office. I’ve always enjoyed pantos. I’d quite like to play the baddie one day.”
Actors of small stature
As well as providing work for soapie stars, the Christmas panto – and Snow White in particular – has traditionally been a boon for actors of small stature. That is, until recently. In 2011, one British panto producer raised the ire of small-statured actors everywhere by having children in Disney character suits miming to prerecorded voices playing the dwarf roles. The reason? Adult actors of short stature are more expensive to hire than children. Lythgoe’s Snow White follows suit, though for a different reason, she says: “I think it’s very important for kids to see other kids on stage. We have 14 children in the show and it’s lovely when their schoolmates or friends come along. We can really help kids become performers.”
One of the timeless routines in panto is the “ghost gag”, and whatever the show, they are always much the same. A group of the good characters will be lost, usually in a dark forest. To calm their fears they distract themselves with a song-and-dance number during which a ghost appears. It is the audience’s job to warn the characters with loud cries of “behiiiiiind you!” Lythgoe says she has a creepy surprise in store for her audience. “The kids are literally screaming their heads off, and the cast pretend they can’t hear, so you get the, ‘oh no there isn’t/oh yes there is’ thing going. It drives the kids wild.”
Goodies and baddies
There isn’t much in the way of moral relativism in a panto. You are good or you are bad. Period. “I’m really enjoying playing the baddie,” says Szubanski, the Wicked Queen in Snow White. “It’s such a nice change from playing poor old Sharon [in Kath & Kim]. When I say, ‘children, don’t you think I’m prettier than that awful Snow White? They’ll have to scream out ‘nooooo!’ or ‘yeeees’ and not be shy it – or there will be trouble.”
Pantomimes have always incorporated topical references and taken pot shots at public figures. Having Szubanski on the project as a co-writer as well as an actor is a boon, says Lythgoe. “She’s better at that local satirical than anyone of us,” she says. “Actually, Snow White can be quite rude in places, but it’s funny rude not horrible rude. It’s insulting in a funny way and not meant to offend someone. You need something for the adults and there are jokes that will go way over the kids’ heads.”
Panto stories may be antique but the modern pantomime must be bang up to date with its music, says Lythgoe. “The audience want pop songs they can sing along to. We have the dwarves doing [Pharrell Williams’] Happy, for example. All the kids will sing along.” Keep an ear cocked for One Direction’s Let’s Go Crazy, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
It falls to James Rees, aka Jimmy Giggle (who plays a jester character Muddles), to teach the Australian audience the road rules of panto. “I’m the classic Fool who’s always being told he’s a fool,” Rees says. “Muddles is a bit like a warm-up guy who comes out and tells everyone what’s happening and makes sure everyone is ready to yell out. “Hopefully it will all happen quite organically after a while, but I’ll always be there to help out. The beauty of a pantomime is that it’s so interactive that one show is totally different to another.”
Queen Magda excited to be evil Magda Szubanski says she’s a “forgive and forget kind of person”, which must be a relief to the producers of Snow White. Why? Because the show features “shock jock” Kyle Sandilands as one of the faces of her two-faced Magic Mirror.
In 2009, Sandilands’ comments about Szubanski’s weight, and his suggestion she would lose it faster in a concentration camp, caused outrage and his suspension from 2DayFM. Szubanski, whose father was Polish, described Sandilands’ comments at the time as “abhorrent”.
“We spoke on the radio the other day and he apologised profusely,” Szubanski says. “He was very contrite and I’m happy to move on. Kyle has pre-taped his performance in this show, anyway, so it was never a big deal.”
Snow White is the first time Szubanski has appeared on a Sydney stage since she played Big Jule in the musical Guys and Dolls in 2009. No stranger to musicals, she also appeared in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2007) at the Sydney Theatre Company and starred alongside Geoffrey Rush in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (2012) in Melbourne.
Panto, she says, is a chance to do something different.
“I get bored really quickly so to have variety in what I get to do is great. I find it challenging,” Szubanski says. “In this country you have to diversify if you are going to survive. Most of us who have kept at it for a long time have a few strings to our bow. I think Snow White will be tremendous fun. It’s a classic story and a spooky story. I love all that stuff.”
Szubanski looks forward to being evil and anticipates the audience interaction will be fun. The dancing? Not so much. “The bare minimum from me,” she laughs. “I’ll move in time to the music, that’s about my limit.”
Snow White – Winter Family Musical runs from July 4 to 13 at the State Theatre, $60 to $108.55.