What makes a good pantomime? As panto dames dust off their skirts and audiences everywhere practice their best ‘he’s behind you’s, Catherine Love catches up with pantomime stars Gary Wilmot and Kellie Shirley to talk tradition, magic and the Kate and Wills effect.
“Don’t mess with perfection.” These are the wise words of pantomime veteran Gary Wilmot, albeit imparted with a wry little chuckle. We are talking about Cinderella, the latest panto that Wilmot is trying his experienced hand at, which is in the final stages of rehearsal at the Richmond Theatre. Wilmot is playing Buttons, alongside a starry cast that includes comedian Jenny Eclair and ex-EastEnders actress Kellie Shirley.
“I think — and I’m not alone in this — that Cinderella is about the best pantomime story there is,” Wilmot continues, now completely serious. There is a sense that he and the entire company have a real belief in the story that they are telling and the importance of entertaining their audience; as Wilmot puts it, “you need to have a desire to send the audience away very happy”.
Pantomime is a unique genre in that it exists purely for entertainment and has to put grins on the faces of multiple generations. This “underrated” art form has the responsibility, Wilmot explains, of entertaining “not only the very young but also the parents and the grandparents and sometimes even the great-grandparents!” How can one show satisfy so many demands?
“I think the important thing is that a story is told,” says Shirley, who is preparing to step into Cinderella’s glass slippers. “A four-year-old kid can come and see it and get as much enjoyment out of it as their grandparents. You can go along with every member of your family and there are lots of layers, there are jokes that the older generation will get and there’s stuff for the kids too.”
None of this happens, however, without a lot of hard — and often hectic — work. The Richmond pantomime has a rehearsal period of just two weeks, into which director Chris Dunham has had to cram acting, singing and dancing rehearsals, not to mention costume fittings. “It’s been quite full on!” Shirley admits. The familiarity of the story is an advantage, though, as Wilmot explains, because “everybody knows the geography of the piece, so we all know how our little bits slot in”.
Dunham, by all accounts, has a strict and fairly traditionalist approach to staging a pantomime, putting quality and precision first. I am surprised to learn from Wilmot that improvisation is not encouraged. “Chris says you’ve got to stay true to the story, so there will be very little, if any, ad-libbing,” explains Wilmot, while Shirley describes the production as “very traditional, very pure and quite Disney-esque”.
This is an approach that seems fitting for Cinderella, arguably the most Disneyfied of all the traditional pantomimes. “It has a bit of magic that not all pantomimes have,” argues Wilmot. “Some of them have it from time to time, but Cinderella seems to be magical the whole way through — probably because every little girl wants to grow up to be a princess.”
Shirley is certainly enjoying “getting to be a princess every day”. She also has her own thoughts about why Cinderella is such a popular and loved “]pantomime. “Cinderella is the best rags to riches story and I think everyone’s a bit of a sucker for that. Because of the Royal Wedding, everyone’s been bitten by the Kate and William bug, and Cinderella sort of reflects that.”
Other than telling a good story and making sure three generations of theatregoers go home happy, pantomime represents for many people their first experience of the theatre, putting a heavy responsibility on the shoulders of those involved. Both Wilmot and Shirley are vehement about this vital duty to make a positive first impression.
“For lots of kids it’s the first time they’ve ever been to the theatre and I think that’s really quite exciting,” enthuses Shirley, while Wilmot describes panto season as “the most important period of the theatre calendar”. “We’ve got to send people home happy,” he continues, “and then hope that they will consider going to the theatre again.”
At the heart of pantomime is unadulterated silliness, cross-generational entertainment and a bit of festive magic. Now almost synonymous with the time of year, Shirley points out that a good pantomime “really gets you in the mood for Christmas”, which is probably the greatest praise a panto could hope for.
“I think pantomime is a crowning Christmas glory,” Wilmot puts it. “Pantomime has very firmly established itself as a part of what we now know as the traditional Christmas.” And sometimes you just can’t beat tradition.