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Bury's theatre director explores what makes a great Christmas panto

PUBLISHED: 11:01 20 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:20 04 February 2019

Nanny Fanny (Chris Clarkson) will be battling the evil fairy Carabosse (Britt Lenting) in the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal pantomime Sleeping Beauty. Story, comedy and great songs are the key to a great pantomime Photo: Aaron Weight

Nanny Fanny (Chris Clarkson) will be battling the evil fairy Carabosse (Britt Lenting) in the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal pantomime Sleeping Beauty. Story, comedy and great songs are the key to a great pantomime Photo: Aaron Weight

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There’s something special about a well-performed pantomime. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to Karen Simpson, from Bury Theatre Royal, about what makes this great theatrical tradition so successful

Nanny Fanny (Chris Clarkson) having a rest before the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal pantomime Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Aaron WeightNanny Fanny (Chris Clarkson) having a rest before the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal pantomime Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Aaron Weight

An essential part of Christmas is a trip to the panto. It’s a joyous excursion to the theatre to see timeless live entertainment. It’s one of the few things left in a world, increasingly designed to accommodate niche interests, which appeals to the whole family.

As Karen Simpson, artistic director of the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds, said: “It’s a wonderful way to entertain many different ages and generations at the same time. Last year when we had our birthday shout-out we had someone celebrating their third birthday and another who was 100. Where else would that happen?

“It’s a wonderful entertainment designed to appeal to kids, to grown-ups and to grandparents. It’s a chance for everyone to get involved in something joyful and silly. There’s lots of music and singing, lots of slapstick and comedy, some magnificent clowning and it offers the opportunity to just lose yourself in the magic of theatre.”

Karen says that the roots of pantomime stretch back to the 17th century and the world of Commedia dell’arte with its tales of foolish old men, devious servants, or military officers full of false bravado as seen through the eyes of the Harlequin.

Practising those frightened faces for  Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal panto Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Aaron WeightPractising those frightened faces for Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal panto Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Aaron Weight

The modern pantomime is the result of a Victorian and Edwardian updating of this older tradition. “You can still see how music hall influenced the modern pantomime, with some wonderful speciality acts, but at the same time it now incorporates the best skills from contemporary theatre. I love casting pantomimes because you can get to see some brilliant performers, real triple-threats, people who can act, sing and dance to an incredibly high standard. That is one of the joys of panto, that audiences can see really talented performers being able to let go and do their thing, be able to really enjoy themselves on stage and this crosses over into the audience.”

So what makes a really good panto?

According to Karen Simpson, a really good pantomime is a mixture of trusted elements including comedy routines, well-known songs, dance, great characters who communicate and engage with the audience but the most important element is story.

“The story is the heart of every great pantomime. It provides the emotional anchor for the audience. It’s what keeps the audience’s interest, what makes them wonder what will happen next. It’s what keeps them engaged – otherwise it’s just a series of stand-alone routines which becomes unsatisfying after a while. It’s very important to have good actors playing strong characters and that all helps tell the story. Panto stories are all about good and evil. Everything is very clear cut, very black and white, there’s no shades of grey here. You know who the baddies are and they are always sent packing but with my pantos, even if the villain is really wicked there’s always the possibility that he can mend his ways, that he can change. There’s always the possibility of redemption, so it’s a positive message and one that kids do respond to.”

She said that the timeless pantos all originated from traditional folk-tales stories like Cinderella, Snow White, Red Riding Hood (Babes in the Wood), Aladdin and, Bury Theatre Royal’s own panto this year, Sleeping Beauty. “These all offer a clear story of right winning out over the wrong-doer and gives the writers plenty of strong, clear story material to play with and for kids to follow.”

She added that once the story was clear then theatre-makers could add all sorts of entertaining extras to the performance. “Music is very important because it adds to the emotional core of the story. If you choose the right song, it can add so much to the evening because everyone knows it and it also informs the action on stage because it tells everyone what the characters are thinking, how they are feeling rather than what they are doing.”

Another important element is the comedy. “The comedy is very important. Everyone loves the slapstick. Little kids in particular love people falling over and getting messy, then we have the Dame for the older members of the audience, people, who perhaps, love a double entendre which will fly over the heads of the little ones.

“Panto is a wonderful mix of the very best of theatre, very best of old and new. It’s an important part of Christmas and something that brings families and the community together. At Bury we always have a community chorus of talented youngsters who perform on stage alongside our professional actors and have had youngsters return as trained professionals thanks to that first taste of theatre-life on stage the Bury Theatre Royal.”

Sleeping Beauty is on at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, from November 30 2018 to January 13 2019. There is a BSL interpreted performance Wed December 12 at 2pm and a relaxed performance on January 11 at 1.30pm. Tickets are on sale at the box office, call 01284 769505, or book online.

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