The Guardian view on pantomime: the goose that keeps on laying | Editorial

There’s nothing like a panto to banish the blues, especially if it stars Sir Ian McKellen as Mother Goose – the grande dame of seasonal fun and frolics

The actor Sir Ian McKellen and the comedian John Bishop are stepping out on to the West End stage over Christmas in the matriarch of all pantomimes, Mother Goose. They have already been to Brighton and before their unusually long season is over they will have played in six more cities, from Liverpool to Dublin, finishing in Cardiff on April Fools’ Day.

The pairing of a mid-career comic and a beloved octogenarian classical actor is a twist on the time-honoured tradition of roping in crowd-pulling celebrities to fatten up theatre’s own golden-egg-laying goose. A trip to see panto has become an annual family and school outing, underwriting the theatre world’s overheads for the rest of the year, hence the dismay when the Covid pandemic laid waste last year’s season.

There have been other arrivistes on the pantomime scene: Aladdin, in 1861, gave us Widow Twankey, in a story taken from the 1001 Nights; Jack and the Beanstalk, in 1886, gave us Dame Durden (later Trott), in a borrowing from English fairytale. But Mother Goose, played by Sir Ian as the owner of a financially imperilled animal sanctuary in the redundant Debenhams building on Oxford Street in London, predates them all, in a show derived from an ancient fable that keeps on giving.

Its pantomime pedigree goes back to 1806, when the celebrated Regency clown Joseph Grimaldi upstaged Harlequin in a commedia dell’arte-derived confection which, much to its creator’s surprise, ran for 92 nights at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, and raked in £20,000 (more than £1.5m in today’s money). Grimaldi’s handwritten script of the final scenes of Harlequin and Mother Goose is among the treasures held by the Library of Birmingham.

However, it was the ageing music hall star Dan Leno who, in 1902, elevated the cross-dressing Mother Goose into today’s flamboyantly outfitted purveyor of double entendres. Batting away misgivings about who is laughing at whom, there are now specialist dames, often with strong local ties and their own catchphrases, such as Berwick Kaler’s “Me babbies, me bairns”. Kaler was lured out of retirement for The Adventures of Granny Goose in York this year, while Clive Rowe, who has described Mother Goose as “the Hamlet of panto”, is currently playing his 15th at London’s Hackney Empire.

There are reasons why some stories survive. This morality tale about the dangers of greed and impatience, attributed to Aesop in the sixth century BC, has hissed its truth through more than two millennia. In recent decades, it has been co-opted as a metaphor for political short-termism on both the left and the right. The McKellen-Bishop Mother Goose, scripted by the Liverpudlian Jonathan Harvey, includes a pig in a school tie called Boris, a baddie named Cruella Braverman and lots of couplets rhyming with “Truss”.

In this of all years, everyone needs a chance to boo and hiss. Baffling to outsiders – as the New York Times discovered when it recently sent two critics out on the circuit – pantomime is a populist art form that speaks of and for the people in all their folly and vivacity. It’s silly and rude, with fabulous frocks. Long may it continue to lay its golden eggs.



The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Mother Goose review – zany Ian McKellen rules over a fluffy affair
Panto finds dame and co-star John Bishop in need of a boost and better jokes, though song and dance performers give it unruly energy

Arifa Akbar

12, Dec, 2022 @12:01 AM

Article image
He is the egg-man: why Ian McKellen has restored my will to live
The 83-year-old Lord of the Rings and X-Men star emerged from a giant golden egg to publicise his role in the Mother Goose panto – and given us just what we need in these troubling times

Stuart Heritage

03, Oct, 2022 @1:40 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Sir Ian McKellen’s tour: truly national theatre
Editorial: The actor’s one-man shows, marking his 80th birthday, will take him back to old haunts


16, Nov, 2018 @5:29 PM

Article image
Let’s put the pure back into pantomime | Letters
Letters: I’m no prude, but I am sick to death of gimcrack TV “celebs” being allowed, even encouraged, irresponsibly to hijack our children’s airwaves, screens and stages


25, Dec, 2016 @5:05 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on local theatres: the shows must go on | Editorial
Editorial: Theatres across the UK are struggling to provide the opportunities that actors and audiences need


06, Dec, 2019 @6:25 PM

Article image
Why pantomime is the Christmas gift that keeps on giving
Panto is a great art form that creates a special bond between performers and audience – and helps keep many theatres in the black

Lyn Gardner

28, Dec, 2015 @11:00 AM

Article image
Ian McKellen review – heartfelt hilarity from a crusader of the stage
Shakespeare, wizards and panto dames all play their part in an evening of autobiography that is a love letter to theatre

Michael Billington

09, May, 2019 @9:22 AM

Article image
Dick Whittington: A New Dick in Town review – innuendo a go-go
The gags come thick and fast in this bawdy adult panto, which is set in a funeral parlour and channels Joe Orton

Ryan Gilbey

11, Nov, 2021 @9:00 PM

Article image
Jack and the Beanstalk review – no expense spared for giant all-star entertainment
Dawn French, Julian Clary and the like join an animatronic giant with a vast beanstalk in an innuendo-heavy, story-light show

Brian Logan

15, Dec, 2022 @1:04 PM

Article image
Cinderella review – pop-powered Hammersmith panto looks sharp
Vikki Stone’s playful fairytale is staged with fabulous costumes and high-energy songs but falls short of delirious comedy

Chris Wiegand

26, Nov, 2023 @10:13 AM