Camp, kid-friendly and hugely popular, the peculiarly British performances usually sell enough tickets to support theaters’ programs throughout the rest of the year.
Every year, for the past 42 years, Berwick Kaler has spent all of December and half of January onstage, wearing an elaborately hideous, multicolored hooped dress, workman’s boots and a bright orange wig.
He is Britain’s longest serving pantomime dame, which makes him, in a way, a Christmas institution. Pantomimes — the merry, family-friendly musical comedy shows which take top billing at theaters throughout December here — traditionally feature an actor in drag. For the people of York, in the north of England, where Kaler has played the dame in productions since 1977, he is as much a part of the holidays as turkey, gifts and family disputes.
At the beginning of last year, Kaler retired from playing the dame, but he had planned to return to the stage at the age of 74 in “Dick Turpin Rides Again,” at York’s Grand Opera House this month.
“It’s one of the most exhilarating, rewarding and physically challenging experiences any actor can go through,” he said of playing a dame in a telephone interview.
In September, however, his plans for a reprise were shelved because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Dick Turpin Rides Again” is one of more than 180 British pantomimes that have been canceled or postponed until next December, a development which has plunged the country’s theater industry, already beleaguered by months of national shutdowns, into dire financial straits.
The pantomime remains a peculiarly British tradition. It is nominally a children’s Christmas show based on a fairy tale — such as “Sleeping Beauty,” “Cinderella” or “Jack and the Beanstalk” — to which music-hall elements are added, making it a show for all the family. These include the dame (who usually has a penchant for sexual innuendo), song-and-dance routines with topical lyrics, slapstick, in-jokes, call-and-response (“Oh no it isn’t!” “Oh yes it is!”) and familiar celebrity guest stars, including ex-soap opera actors, former boy band members and children’s TV presenters.
Pantomimes represent many British children’s first experience of live performance, and many adults’s only theater trip in a year. In pre-Covid times, when multi-generational outings were not considered a health risk, three generations would often attend shows together. Featuring large casts, dancers, musicians, elaborate costumes and special effects, “pantos,” as they are known, usually provide work for thousands of people each year.
As such, they are crucial to the British theatrical ecosystem. In the 2018-19 season, according to figures compiled by the industry advocacy group U.K. Theatre, there were 2.9 million tickets to pantomimes sold, with takings of 63 million pounds ($83 million) at the box office. For many theaters, the festive show provides the financial means to stage the rest of the year’s program, typically bringing in around 30 percent of their annual box office in just four weeks.
Most theaters in Britain have been shut since March, when the country went into its first coronavirus lockdown. The British theater industry is projected to lose £3 billion ($3.9 billion), or 61 percent of its expected revenue, in 2020, according to a report published in June by Oxford Economics, a forecasting group. In the same month, as many as 200,000 theater jobs were thought to be at risk, if the government didn’t intervene.
When, in July 2020, the British government announced a £1.57 billion rescue package for arts organizations at risk of closure because of the pandemic, pantomimes were given special mention by the culture secretary Oliver Dowden. He even named the project to bring back live performance “Operation Sleeping Beauty.”