Pantomimes might be the answer to the quandaries of our current theatrical environment

Ian McKellen encourages panto as a year-round phenomenon 

With outrage amassing about misplaced audience participation during musicals, it seems only fair to consider the most accepted form of audience interaction in theatre history: the pantomime. Ian McKellen concluded his tour of the beloved pantomime ‘Mother Goose’ on 16 April, proving the power of the play form outside of the festive season. Receiving a mix of reviews from those astounded by his comical flair to those questioning his fall from Shakespearean heights, the production received a litany of opinionated critical discussion. But why perform a panto during the Easter months? 

Pantomime is far older than its Christmas associations. Originating with the Commedia dell’Arte Italian art form, the style is now characterised by fairytale plots, modern pop songs, ridiculous costumes, and, of course, the pantomime dame. By the 18th century, the London stage was full of these traditions, introducing the concept of ‘slapstick’ humour and the art of mime to the mix. Cross-dressing was wildly popular, with male actors harking back to older traditions in their development of the beloved dame, and female actors pushing the boundaries of modesty with their adoption of masculine shorts and tights. 

Pantomime is one of the few theatrical traditions that has not only stood the test of time, but also been re-embraced by each new generation. While operas, ballets, and Shakespearean plays have to fight to encourage younger crowds, pantomimes are well-known for being a family outing. 

Pantomimes became associated with Christmas thanks to a Victorian tradition to open each production on Boxing Day, but Ian McKellen wants this to change, encouraging its uptake by all segments of society, at all times of the year. “A pantomime is a must!” he claimed on an American chat show. “I don’t have anything to prove, I’m not trying to make it – if I ever was. I’m trying to give the audience a good time.” 

Pantomimes are certainly an eclectic art form, with its humour acting as political satire, double entendre, and visual comedy. ‘Mother Goose’ offers modern mockery, such as encouraging the audience to boo every time the energy company is mentioned, as well as traditional puns about “big sticks of rock” and a pun on “cockatoo”. 

“It uses every device that theatre can offer, there’s singing, there’s dancing, there’s rhyme, there are jokes,”  Ian McKellen said of the production. “But what intrigues me is that it has come out of this country.”

With Ian McKellen adding his name to the rostra of famous actors to adopt pantomime drag, perhaps it is time we reconsider the art form. Instead of viewing it as an odd little tradition, pantomime might make its way into a higher art form in years to come. 

Recent debates suggest that audiences love to participate in their favourite retelling of beloved classics, so why not fill the demand with an art form that appreciates it? Pantomimes might be the answer to the quandaries of our current theatrical environment. After all, if Sir Ian McKellen can adopt a skirt and satirise our current political hellhole, there is no one who can claim to be ‘above’ this long-loved tradition. 


Alexandra Hart

Alexandra Hart Contributor

I'm a student from London with a mammoth passion for all things theatrical. My favourite things are reviews, fringe festivals and interval ice-creams!

Writing for Voice Mag has given me a platform to develop my journalism and artistic skills - the perfect excuse to attend even more arts events in my local area. When I'm dancing, acting or creating I feel like I finally have a purpose in life. I hope this will be the start of a journey fuelled by my passion, and, propelled by my enthusiasm, this is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.

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