How Scousers fell for pantomime
Fire up the glitter cannons, panto season is back
By Mollie Simpson
7pm, backstage at the Royal Court. Adam McCoy, a preternaturally warm and bubbly actor in his mid-thirties, is feeling the nerves today. “This is the worst job,” he says, holding a coffee and leaning on one elbow against the stage. “I’ve never corpsed so much as I have doing this. It’s terrible. It’s terrible.”
‘Corpsing’ — or breaking character by laughing — is when an actor loses composure on stage and is to be avoided like the plague. But in Merseyside’s pantomime scene, actors mischievously try to make things uncomfortable for their fellow actors, knowing that when they break, the audience loves it. This season marks Adam’s first time performing at the Royal Court, known for its “adult” pantomimes, filled with obscene jokes and references to dodgy councillors. If that weren’t already enough pressure, he’s playing the titular role, Dick, and his co-star Andrew Schofield keeps trying to make him corpse mid-performance. Later, I watch Adam struggle to keep his composure as Andrew minces on stage in an extravagant wig and tight black leather trousers. I feel sorry for him. If you’ve ever been in a tense work meeting, as you’ll know, wanting to laugh when you know you really can’t is an impossible task.
Robert and Alison, the couple sitting next to me, spend the performance necking Prosecco and howling with laughter. “We just love it,” Alison says when we get chatting in the interval, topping up my empty pint glass with some Prosecco. “It’s permission to have fun, it’s permission to be a bit silly, a bit less serious.” Scouse Dick Whittington’s basic premise is this: one unremarkable day, a fairy visits a man called Dick Head (played by Adam McCoy) and tells him that he will go on to become the Lord Mayor of Liverpool and save the city from corruption. “Could that really be a lucrative career?” Dick Head wonders aloud. A Panto version of Joe Anderson, played by a woman in an oversized Don Draper suit and a beige bald cap, says it can. “You can make a shedload if you become mayor,” Panto Joe tells him, beamed in from an exotic island called Hilbre. But first, Dick Head must embark on a quest to defeat King Rat, find some treasure and save his friend Cat. The plot gets scattershot after the second act — but really, who’s complaining when the jokes are flying at you this thick and fast and the drinks are flowing?
Every Christmas, local theatres vie to make their pantomime a sellout success. It’s not an overstatement to say that pantomime is the lifeblood of a lot of local theatres — I’m told the sales during the festive season at the Floral Pavilion in New Brighton account for around a quarter of the theatre’s yearly revenue, and as Dr David Jeffery, director of Woolton Drama Group’s production of Hansel and Gretel, puts it, a good panto vs a bad panto is the difference between funding the rest of the year’s shows, or not.
What’s heartening to hear is that after a difficult pandemic, Merseyside’s theatre scene is thriving again. The Royal Court says it has sold 45,000 tickets this year, out of roughly 70,000 available. The Everyman has sold 26,759 out of 33,120, and the Floral Pavilion says it has broken a box office record, but they still want to boost sales for the final week of performances in early January, so Oliver Brooks, who plays the Dame, says he’s going to stand outside the local Morrison’s in full costume and dish out leaflets to shoppers.
Of course, pantomime isn’t for everyone — David Powley, the front of house manager at the Floral Pavilion, barely suppresses an eye roll when I ask if he’s been enjoying the show, and I have to nurse a migraine after sitting alongside 800 screaming children for two hours — but no one can deny its importance.
For Dr David Jeffery, it’s no surprise that pantomime is so popular in Merseyside. “There’s definitely something about the type of comedy that panto relies on that lines up very nicely with the type of comedy that Scousers like,” he says. “If you think about the type of humour Scousers pride themselves on it’s quippy one liners, little jokes, and very similar to panto, and you know that audiences in Liverpool are going to be as good as the cast.”
And there’s a broad offer too, so whether or not you’re big on pantos, there’s theoretically something for every taste: the Everyman does a rock‘n’roll panto, the Empire does the big musicals, and the Royal Court has shows as local as they come, replete with obscene jokes and those winking references to embezzling mayors. At the Floral Pavilion in New Brighton, Jack and the Beanstalk is a slick, big-budget affair, featuring 3D special effects and flamboyant glittery costumes.
But the pressure isn’t just on the marketing team to sell as many tickets as possible. The actors also feel the pressure of performing for local audiences. Backstage at the Royal Court, Hayley Sheen, a confident and talented actress who is a regular fixture at the festive shows, tells me she’s found local audiences more discerning and critical than audiences in Edinburgh or London. “They’re very vocal, and you can feel it in the atmosphere if they don’t like something,” she says. “So that can be difficult, but it can also be more exciting, because it forces us to give everything.”
Her co-star Adam admits his Royal Court debut has been “a little bit daunting”. “It was scary. Were they going to be like ‘Who’s this guy?’” The idea of performing for an audience of adults rather than kids piled on extra pressure — he had assumed that adults would be more serious, less forgiving of mistakes. He quickly realised this wasn’t true. “To be honest, they behave worse than normal panto kids,” he says. “Some of them think they’re in the show.”
Four days before opening night at the Floral Pavilion, ten dancers are practising the routine for the closing number of Act One, a cover of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, sang beautifully by the TV actress Hayley Tamaddon. “Step this way, one two three four,” the choreographer orders, gesturing at everyone’s feet. Tom Sterling, an actor whose credits include big West End shows like The Phantom of the Opera and Carousel, plays The King. He says he’s longed to do a pantomime ever since he went to see his first as a child. “I remember discovering I could call out and not get into trouble,” he says, looking mischievous. “I get to be part of this and I won’t be in trouble.”
The actors are rushed off to the costume department for fittings. The seamstress Amy Pickard is carefully fitting Oliver into his Dame costume. “Amy?” a woman with a radio says, bursting into the room. “Any chance we can do flats for the dance scene?” “That’s fine!” Amy shouts back.
The outfits are varied and flamboyant, requiring multiple quick changes throughout the night (some costume changes need to be done in 30 seconds or less). “You just get on and do it,” she says when I gasp. “You’re so focussed on the task, you haven’t got time to think.”
When I head to Jack and the Beanstalk at the Floral Pavilion, everything runs seamlessly. It’s a midweek matinee, and I was not imagining anyone turning up in huge numbers. But the theatre was buzzing. Eight hundred children scream with glee when 3D effects of flies and rats shoot off the screen and straight into the audience, and there’s genuine delight in the eyes of two little girls, dancing along to Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.
After the performance, I step out into the cold air of New Brighton with a spring in my step. I head to the city centre, where I watch the rock ‘n’ roll pantomime Cinderella at the Everyman. Again, it was a full house. “Well, I’ve never had such a warm hand in my entrance,” the Fairy Godmother says as she enters to rapturous applause, in one of many scene-stealing moments. Spare a thought for the actress playing Cinderella. It’s all very well being the emotional centre of the play — and goodness knows she gets plenty of awws — but her lines are thin on comedy. The Fairy Godmothers, on the other hand, are free to be as electric and mad as they want.
My first memory of pantomime errs closer to endurance than enjoyment. I’ll never forget sitting through hours of a makeshift production of The Wizard of Oz aged nine in the local village hall, becoming increasingly desperate for a wee, trying to leave early and getting told off by my teacher for not supporting my classmates instead. But it struck me, halfway through watching Lindzi Germain closing a wooden door exclaiming “just going to close my flap”, that the trick to enjoying pantomime is leaning into the chaos. When the brilliant Andrew Schofield takes to the stage in an extravagant wig and tight black leather trousers, Adam creases up, finally allowing himself to corpse. But it doesn’t matter — the audience is laughing along with him.