Ghosts of Pantos Past
by Holly Adomah Thompson
The festive period is a magical time at Stratford East. ‘Tis the season to be theatrical, being with family and friends to enjoy of our much-loved pantomimes. Unfortunately, this year will be a bit different, but we're still spreading the Christmas spirit with our fundraiser, Remember This December, so no ‘Bah, Humbug’ just yet.
We’ve been staging family shows for over 130 years, from the first performance of Proof on 26 Dec 1884 to last year's Dick Whittington - pantos are central to the very fibre of our building. Each year, we welcome over 25,000 people, of which, 15,000 are young people, many of whom are experiencing live theatre for the first time. If we had a penny for every time someone has told us, 'Oh yeah, I went to Theatre Royal as a kid!' then, well.... we’d have many a penny!
Pantomime (which means “all kinds of mime”) drew influences from the commedia dell'arte, a popular form of theatre in Italy during the Early Modern period. It was from the 17th century where the artform developed into the more slapstick comedies that we’re familiar with today. Pantos are often based on well-known children’s stories and fairytales and feature stock characters getting into all sorts of raucous situations.
The most-performed pantos at Stratford East are: Cinderella (eight times), Dick Whittington (seven times) and Red Riding Hood (six times) with Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin both being performed five times. Other recent show include: Sinbad The Sailor, Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast. Looking back further, the titles certainly get a tad more obscure, from 1916’s The Soldier Priest to 1944’s A Message from Mars.
One thing we feel makes a Stratford panto unique is that we aim to bring the story bang up to date to keep it current. We also always create original songs to get those toes tapping, quite often created by musical maestro Robert Hyman – who has written the music for over 20 of our shows. The Guardian called 2018’s Sleeping Beauty ‘a panto for present day,’ whilst LondonTheatre1 commented, ‘As usual, Stratford East has gone all out to produce a great production that really does reflect the culturally and socially diverse local community’ for 2019’s Dick Whittington. Plus, did you know that in 2008, our production of Cinderella was nominated for an Olivier Award – the first ever panto to achieve this.
Pantos are seriously hard work. Performers learn a whole new musical in just four weeks and then perform it more than 70 times over the holiday period. That’s a lot of singing, dancing and sweet throwing. We also start building the sets for our shows about six months before opening night. It takes over 200 people to get a show ready and we work with some incredible people, from costume makers and dressers to lighting designers and music directors and everyone in between.
We know the importance of pantomimes for our community and love creating shows that get you right in the feels. It pains us that we’re unable to welcome you this year, but we look forward to 2021 with our cloaked heroine Red Riding Hood when we’ll be back bigger than ever. Oh, yes, we will!
We love hearing your stories about coming to see our show, so feel free to drop us an email with some of your favourite panto memories.
Photos in gallery:
Big Rock Candy Mountain - 1955 (John Spinner)
Treasure Island - 1956 (John Spinner)
A Christmas Carol - 1958 (John Spinner)
Artwork for Jack and the Beanstal - 1982
Red Riding Hood - 1984
Hansel & Gretel - 1985
Dick Whittington - 1988
Artwork for Aladdin - 1992
The Sleeping Beauty - 1994
Jack and the Beanstalk - 1995
Dick Whittington - 1999
Jack and the Beanstalk - 2002
Red Riding Hood - 2003
Cinderella - 2008
Robin Hood - 2015 (Sharron Wallace)
Sinbad The Sailer - 2016 (Sharron Wallace)
Rapunzel - 2017 (Scott Rylander)
Sleeping Beauty - 2018 (Scott Rylander)
Dick Whittington - 2019 (Ikin Yum)