For many children, going to the pantomime is their first experience of live theatre. Therefore it’s in all us theatre folks’ interest that the experience is a good one. We don’t want to put them off for life.
I’ll never forget reading a review of a panto (thankfully not one of mine) that started “Oh well, bang goes another generation of theatregoers.” But these days first-time small theatregoers are just as likely to be taken to a show featuring a favourite character, an icon from children’s television or books.
There are lots of them around – I have done a few including FIMBLES LIVE! and SPOT’S BIRTHDAY PARTY. Others include RUPERT BEAR, THE GRUFFALO, ENGIE BENJY, NODDY, FIREMAN SAM, POSTMAN PAT and MR. MEN. (Have you noticed how most of these characters are male? Apparently this is because girls are willing to accept ‘boys’ as main characters, but boys won’t accept ‘girls’.)
Most of these shows tour to large and middle-scale theatres. Some, like TWEENIES and THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE plays arenas. The recent ANGELINA BALLERINA has tried upping the cultural stakes by touring with the English National Ballet. And I hear that CHARLIE AND LOLA will soon be tried out by one of our top children’s theatre companies.
Disney provides ice show versions of classic animation movies. All these shows, on whatever scale, are welcome if they inspire and entertain small children and encourage them to want to come to the theatre again. Most do. But I worry that some of them are not inventive or imaginative enough and, while producing healthy box office figures, thanks to their popular subject matter, do not offer enough theatrical magic to hook their young customers for life.
Compare it with a visit to meet Father Christmas, in a department store. The build-up is everything. For weeks the child excitedly looks forward to meeting Santa in the flesh. Then the journey to the store, the queue to the entrance to the grotto, and finally the big moment … Five minutes later it’s all over. Mission accomplished. Hopefully the child, with gift, goes home happy. The first-time theatre visit is surprisingly similar. Except for one thing. The experience has to last for ninety minutes, not five! It’s up to us to create a show that grabs and holds the audience for much longer than Father Christmas has to engage them. And when we fall short we know only too well, because the children start talking or crying or running around or kicking the seat in front or asking to go to the loo.
The challenge is to keep them engrossed for the full running-time. A recent example I take my hat off to is LAZYTOWN LIVE, which I saw at the vast Apollo, Hammersmith. Because I had never seen the tv show on which it is based, I can’t comment on how faithful it is. But the colour of the sets, the exuberance of the cast, the eye-catching movement and choreography and the general feel good factor pouring from the stage into the packed auditorium and from the auditorium back to the stage made the whole experience a delight. And I am sure that most of the excited young spectators, who participated with gusto, yet listened to the storyline, will not be reluctant to return to the theatre again and, hopefully, again.
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