‘If people can’t go to the panto then it must go to them’: the birth of The Travelling Pantomime

Published in The Telegraph November 29, 2020

Pantomime is a cornerstone of Christmas for families up and down Britain – but few cities are quite as committed to it as York. The annual show at York Theatre Royal is a proper local institution, with generations of families booking the same seats year after year, and prompting queues around the block the day tickets go on sale.

For 40 years, the legendary Berwick Kaler played their dame – and although he hung up his wig in 2019, the pantomime continues to be their biggest box office return and an immovable fixture of the festive season for many York residents.

This year is different, of course. Although York will be in Tier 2 when the national lockdown lifts next week, meaning the theatre is allowed to open to socially distanced audiences, the reduced capacity – and a perceived reluctance on behalf of theatregoers to travel to the theatre on public transport – has forced it to abandon its normal, large-scale extravaganza.

“We were hearing a lot of people saying we’d love to come, but we’re not that sure about taking a bus into town,” says Tom Bird, York Theatre Royal’s executive director. Then he hit on a new idea: if the people can’t go to the pantomime, then the pantomime must go to the people. The Travelling Pantomime was born. A small-scale show, with a company of just five actors, The Travelling Pantomime will visit community venues in all wards of York during December – assuming York remains in Tier 2 or below. 

Primary schools, churches, village halls, libraries, and sports centres will host the pantomime, allowing audiences to see a show within walking distance of their own homes. They have an adaptable stage and proscenium arch, enabling the pantomime to pop up in venues of all shapes and sizes.

“You transform the space into a theatre for the night,” says Juliet Forster, the pantomime’s director, over a Zoom call. “It does feel like a nice gift we’re sending out to audiences for Christmas.” And the citizens of York have certainly taken to the idea: tickets, which went on sale earlier this month, almost completely sold out within 48 hours, and plans are now afoot to extend into January, restrictions allowing.

“The reaction has been so strong,” says Bird. “York is a panto city: you can have three major large-scale pantos here for a city of 200,000 people in a normal year. People take it pretty seriously.”

Part of the fun of a pantomime is that, among the songs and the silliness, it also takes topical potshots at the year that’s just passed. How will that work in 2020: can the coronavirus be a laughing matter?

“You do have to be careful,” says Robin Simpson, who plays The Travelling Pantomime’s dame. “But the British are great at laughing at themselves – and I think we can laugh at Barnard Castle, or having to wash our hands to ‘Happy Birthday’.”

York Theatre Royal received £236,522 from the Cultural Recovery Fund – and it felt important to the team that they used the money to at least try to put work on for the local community at Christmas, despite all the uncertainties. “The worst thing is rolling over and going ‘it’s hopeless’,” says Forster. “We have to keep going.” Financially, this tour won’t offset the loss of traditional panto income for the theatre: it’ll either break even or make a small loss. “But I do think organisations should be careful about doing absolutely nothing: you’ve got an audience and community to stay in touch with,” Bird adds.

Some of the audiences on the tour will be as small as 20 people, although larger venues will be able to host up to about 100. Will that affect the usual audience participation? “The main thing is being masked, and whether that makes people feel restricted,” worries Forster. “I don’t know. But I hope [audiences] will feel free to laugh and make noise – although the government directive is not to encourage the audience to shout and sing along too loudly, so we’ve reduced some of that. But there are still active ways for the audience to take part.”

In fact, The Travelling Pantomime has introduced a major new element of audience participation: they get to choose which show they see. Bird decided that the company should offer three different classic pantos – Dick Whittington, Jack and The Beanstalk and Snow White – every night, and allow audiences to vote for which they’d prefer to watch. Bird used to be a producer for Shakespeare’s Globe, and was inspired by their tours offering audiences three Comedies to choose from each night. “If you can do it for Shakespeare, you can do it in panto,” he says. “By introducing democracy into the room, it immediately shows a generosity.”

That has created a lot of work for the cast and crew, of course, and Forster and Simpson admit to feeling some relief when lockdown two pushed back their opening night, especially as their principal boy, actress Faye Campbell, tested positive for Covid-19 on day one of rehearsals. The first fortnight was spent with her calling into rehearsals via Zoom. But Forster has come round to the idea. “We’ve all had our choices reduced so massively over the last nine months, so to open up a choice, and give a bit of power back to the audience just gives the show another blast of life,” she says.

None the less, writing and rehearsing three pantomimes during a pandemic, while also getting 15 non-theatre venues signed up, sized up, and drilled in how to host the show safely, has been a huge challenge. Luckily, Bird has form here too: while at the Globe, he produced its epic Hamlet tour, which went to every country in the world, including literal war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Surely visiting every ward in York is a doddle by comparison? “This is harder!” he says. “I think there were more people who said ‘You can’t do a Christmas show in York this year’ than said ‘You can’t tour Hamlet to every country in the world’.”

Bird admits to being something of a pantomime sceptic prior to coming to York Theatre Royal. But knowing how important panto was to the theatre’s identity, last year he went on a grand tour to see 19 pantomimes around the country – and came back fully converted. Pandemic or not, pantomime is simply an essential part of Christmas for many in York and the plucky spirit of the venture seems to have really captured imaginations.  “People think we’re mad – but they want us to pull it off,” says Bird.

Where next?