There is no form of theatre that is as uniquely British as pantomime, even if it was partially inspired by early Italian sketch shows and Greek tragedies. Nothing else combines kids’ entertainment, smutty humour, gender fluidity, former-soap stars and gay performance history in one place. It also provides new, young audiences for theatres, offering these venues a much-needed seasonal boost to sustain them through the otherwise lean winter.
A good portion of panto’s extensive heritage is held in the University of Kent archives, where the Special Collections and Archives team can be found talking visitors through detailed drawings of designs for panto outfits, or even digging into its rather unexpected collection of false breasts worn by panto dames. This is no dry and dusty collection of manilla files and crumbling manuscripts, but rather a living collection that inspires performers and performances today, engages audiences near and far, as well as being a centre for new research.
To neatly illustrate this value, and to encourage more visits from a wider audience, the team recently took the archive and its influence to The Beaney Museum and even to the theatre, in the shape of a new performance. Beyond the Binary: Performing Gender Then and Now was a six-month AHRC-funded project that saw further research of the printed archive materials, a two-day event at the archives and exhibition at The Beaney, culminating in a performance at the Gulbenkian Arts Centre on 29 September 2022.
“I think people just underestimate the historical value of pantomime,” says Karen Brayshaw, who was co-lead investigator on Beyond the Binary. “It’s highly valued in terms of bringing money in. But it is also an opportunity to play with gender in a way that straight theatre doesn’t do in quite the same way. It is also constantly changing. We think of pantomime as being a traditional form of theatre, but history shows early pantomime is completely different. It constantly evolves.”
Pantomime has long played with gender roles, so much so that the principal boy is usually female and the ugly sisters are portrayed by middle-aged men. This altered view of mainstream society has long provided a space for actors to explore gender roles and fluidity in a space where nothing less is expected.
The role of pantomime dame is a platform for male actors to explore camp, drag, risqué jokes and upfront sexuality. The gags are, naturally, aimed to go straight over the heads of the hordes of young children in attendance.
It was the notion of layered references to gender and sexuality that inspired Dr Olly Double, co-lead investigator and Head of Comedy and Popular Theatre at the University of Kent, in his organising of the Rowdy Dowdy Boys and Saucy Seaside Girls performance to accompany the research and exhibition.
Commissioning comedian Mark Thomas and musical performers Lunatraktors to write new performances and perform archival material, assisted by Double, who has a background as a professional performer.
“I had recently seen Mark Thomas perform and he sang [music hall standard] The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery,” says Double. “It struck me I should ask him to be involved. There are crossovers between panto and music hall, especially with the performers. But a lot of the music hall songs play with gender, too. The inspiration for the show’s title, Rowdy Dowdy Boys, comes from a song sung by a male impersonator. There are lots of songs from a male viewpoint about being chased by women, but often the singer was a woman playing a man at the mercy of women who are constantly pursuing him.”
Double sent archive materials and songs to Thomas and folk duo Lunatraktors, whose work often explores themes of gender and sexuality, to inspire their performances. Double himself performed Burlington Bertie from Bow, which was originally by male impersonator Ella Shields. Although he had some trouble when deciding what to pick from the wealth of impressive material in the archives.
“Dan Leno was one of the most famous UK comedians of his day and we have this quite amazing self-portrait by him of the transformation in the Mother Goose role for pantomime,” says Double.
“It’s a transformation of age and class, as she is transformed from 60 years of age to 16. This was drawn and painted towards the end of Leno’s life and given to somebody who cared for him when he was in some form of institution. It really captures his face, one of his last great performances and what happens when Mother Goose is transformed into a beautiful young woman and starts attending society bashes.”
The various aspects of Beyond the Binary brought new audiences to the work, but also inspired a raft of donations to the archive from the local area, showing that a publicity push and community engagement can have great rewards, feeding back into the archive and generating new research resources and questions for researchers. Photographs, books and stories have been slowly trickling in, as well as visits from first-time visitors. This has greatly pleased project lead Helen Brooks, who is Professor of Cultural and Creative History in the School of Arts.
“Something I’m passionate about is making history accessible and interesting and fun,” says Brooks. “Taking something which people might not have looked at for generations and using that to discover and draw conclusions about the past is a really fun job to have. It’s about sharing that with others and giving different audiences a chance to engage with history through the primary sources: the actual objects and the materials.”
The project will produce a further legacy in 2023 in the shape of helping dementia patients to connect with their own memories of panto and performance, as part of work with Caring Altogether on Romney Marsh (CARM). The charity supports older people in rural areas that will use archive materials as prompts in ‘reminiscence’ sessions, allowing patients to recall their experience of panto and discuss memories of childhood or performance.
The archive will also be exposed to pantomime fans during a tour of Mother Goose starring Ian McKellen.
“We have just finished work on a pop-up Beyond the Binary exhibition for the Ian McKellen production of Mother Goose, starting in Brighton and then opening in the West End, says Brooks. “We’ve got some lovely examples of various LGBTQ+ icons, such as Danny La Rue, John Inman and Larry Grayson. There will also be a separate, slightly broader traveling exhibition, which will follow the show to theatres in the new year, right through till March. We weren’t anticipating quite as much as follow-on activity from the project, so it’s great to see it taking on an additional life.”
“Something I’m passionate about is making history accessible and interesting and fun. Taking something which people might not have looked at for generations and using that to discover and draw conclusions about the past is a really fun job to have."
For further information, please visit our Special Collection and Archives.