‘The length of each act should be the length of a child’s bladder,” Polly Lister laughs. “You never want it to spill over.” Due to Covid restrictions, panto dames and the back-ends of horses have been stuck without a stage this Christmas, but some theatres have found a way to keep the panto magic alive. Working within the restrictions of social distancing, the rule of six and the avoidance of mixing households, theatres up and down the country are offering a sudden burst of one-person shows. Lister is one of the solo performers hoping to bring a bit of Christmas cheer to the end of this miserable year.
“We’ve got a poet raven, a Scottish robber, a Brummie reindeer – not the famous one,” lists Lister, who will play almost a dozen characters in Scarborough’s The Snow Queen. Staged at the Stephen Joseph Theatre (SJT), the show was originally intended for a cast of five, but to avoid a gamble, they whittled it down to one actor. “We workshopped it over Zoom, got characters up on their feet and picked the best of the bunch.” The protagonists, Kai and Gerder, begin their life as baubles on a Christmas tree.
Normally in Scarborough, Santa arrives by boat alongside a group of fishermen to turn on the Christmas lights. With those plans cancelled this year, Lister believes the theatre has a duty to serve some extra joy. “We’re going all out,” she says determinedly. “Christmas isn’t cancelled in Scarborough.”
Alongside the regular measures of masks, hand sanitiser and social distancing, the SJT has created a whole separate bubble with performer Jacoba Williams. Throughout the run, Williams will be performing two shows a week, and if anyone from Lister’s team needs to isolate, she and her group will take over all of the performances. “If our bubble goes down,” Lister says, “the show will still go on.”
Further south is Mama G – or Mother Goose, if you’re feeling formal – a panto-dame drag queen created by Robert Pearce. “Panto is unique in its ability to communicate with every single age group,” says Pearce, who’s been producing what he calls petite pantos since 2018. “We did a Dick Whittington that was all about Brexit and Windrush, and we did Mother Goose where Trump was the baddie. All of his lines were verbatim – which was really too easy to do.” The trick to managing the energy as a solo performer, he says, is feeding off the energy of the audience. “It’s like a tennis match, we’re constantly passing it to each other.”
Mama G’s stories are sprinkled with tales of inclusivity and acceptance. “What I’m really saying to kids,” Pearce says, “is to understand that if you’re gay, know that someone, in a really fun way, told you that that was OK.” As well as performing as Mama G in a full-scale socially distanced panto in Gravesend, he’s producing a three-person musical, adapted for Christmas but tourable all year. Eunice! is a musical story of a horse unsure of who she is, and will be raising money for the LGBTQ+ charity Mermaids.
Over in Oldham, the Coliseum theatre has a digital treat in store with solo shows of Cinderella and Dick Whittington. “The panto is a huge part of Christmas in Oldham,” says Shorelle Hepkin, who is playing Cinderella, “and with this being the first time in years, possibly decades, they can’t put one on, it keeps the magic alive while the theatre can’t be physically open.” The piece is told from Cinderella’s perspective, so we get her first-hand thoughts on the ugly sisters and her prince.
When she was 11, Hepkin drove Cinderella to the ball as a member of the panto ensemble. In 2018, she finally got to wear the glass slippers as she took to the Oldham stage as Cinderella herself. She says performing panto is “such a magical experience”, especially because it’s often the first time children will have gone to the theatre. “To see them get so involved, dancing along, it makes your heart melt.” The only difference this year, she says, is that she’ll be performing “down a camera instead of to 500 screaming kids”.
Another lone performer this Christmas is comedian Tom Binns, playing firm panto favourite Buttons, who learns from Zoom that the rest of his cast has been furloughed; he didn’t get the memo. More of an Edinburgh fringe kind of man, this is Binns’ first panto. “I’m thankful for the lockdown,” he says. “I don’t think I would have got it finished otherwise.”
Binns wanted to retain a lot of the core panto traditions, but aligning them with Covid rules has required some lateral thinking. “One of the classics is the singalong, where you have the mums and dads singing against the kids,” he says. As singing in groups isn’t allowed, he’ll be teaching the audience a song in Makaton instead.
If things go wrong, Binns believes the crowd will be on his side. Over the summer he has been performing drive-in comedy gigs from the converted roof of his van. “We had some technical problems but people just didn’t care.” He has faith that panto audiences will take a similar view. “I’ve been to see a panto at least once a year since 1981, when I saw Bobby Lupton at the Crucible,” he says. “I’m yet to find a reluctant audience!”