He's behind you! The British pantomime is as popular as ever

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: The cast of Dick Whittington, who will be performing at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in Stratford The cast of Dick Whittington, who will be performing at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, in Stratford

‘Tis the season for family outings, overeating, mulled wine and, for many, the long-standing tradition of the British Christmas pantomime.

The musical, slapstick theatre production is a staple in many theatres across the country from the beginning of December up until the end of January.

Aladdin, Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk remain firm family favourites, and even the jokes remain set in stone with plenty of double entendres, bellows of “he’s behind you” and audience interaction.

But in the last decade, pantomimes have developed a reputation for being less fashionable with their predictable and farcical set-ups.

Despite this, many smaller, amateur theatres have never been so successful than during the pantomime season and they put this down to the format’s ability to provide something for everyone, whilst also including up-to-date jokes about celebrities or events such as the Olympics.  

An array of east London theatres will be upholding the tradition this year, including veterans the Kenneth More Theatre in Ilford, with Aladdin, and Theatre Royal Stratford East, in Stratford, with Dick Whittington.

Woodford Pantomime, a sub-group of the Woodford Operatic and Dramatic Society (WOADS), will be holding its 53rd Christmas pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, at the Sir James Hawkey Hall, in Broomhill Road, Woodford Green from January 2-12.

Woodford Pantomime committee member Judy Linard, 53, believes the tradition is experiencing something of a revival.

She said: “Every year we see a range of people coming through the door to our shows and the audience gets more and more diverse.

“Pantomime is a peculiar British tradition but I think it is experiencing a revival because there is still something for everyone.

“Although it is slapstick and silly, it’s not religious and therefore crosses over into a lot of communities now.

“Last year we had an American family visit because the father grew up in Woodford Green and wanted to show his children what a British pantomime was like after growing up seeing Woodford Pantomime.

“His children thought it was bizarre but he was over the moon to come back and see that nothing had changed.

“You will struggle to find a theatre in the UK which will not be putting on a pantomime.”

Woodford Pantomime began its rehearsals in September and has performed in the 400-seat Sir James Hawkey Hall every year since the group formed.

Mrs Linard said: “We have looked around at other venues over the years as it does get expensive, so because of that we do only break even after ticket sales.

“But during the year we hold quiz nights and we have a lot of support from the local community.

“A lady and her daughter have been coming to Woodford Pantomime every year except for the first in 1961 and still wouldn’t miss a performance for the world.”

Playing the lead role of Sleeping Beauty is 17-year-old Ellie Dennis, a pupil at Woodbridge High School in her fifth pantomime season with WOADS.

She said: “Every year all my friends come to see the performance and it never gets old. Even though the jokes are silly, everyone always gets carried away with the characters and the story.

“It’s a Christmas tradition that I have always gone to with my family and is different to any other kind of theatre.

“I first started out in pantomimes as a dancer, and since then it has always been a part of my life – there is nothing else like it.”

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