There’s only one thing on at the Oxford Playhouse main stage between Friday 29 November – Sunday 12 January: the pantomime of Robin Hood. As any student will tell you, three week run in Oxford is a long time – most other plays at the theatre are given a week at most. Take, as a comparison, the OP’s exclusive showing of Alan Ayckbourne’s trio of new plays – in spite of being a household name, the playwright has been allotted a measly six days in February.
Clearly they’re expecting a surge in ticket sales for Robin Hood, in spite of the hefty increase in prices to as mich as £24.50. January’s theatre “staple” of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, which contains just as much cross dressing and sly jokes as any decent pantomime, makes a nod to students with more friendly £11 tickets. Of course, lots of Oxford students won’t be in residence over Christmas – perhaps the annual pantomime is a sign that the OP is abandoning all us “urban arts eclectics” (as the British Arts Council so delightfully calls one small segment of the arts-engaged population), and turning its attentions to a wider audience.
Pantomime is often praised for bringing in audiences who might not go to the theatre at other times of the year. Celebrity appearances are heavily advertied to pull in the festive troops. David Hasselhoff performs in Cinderella at the Bristol Hippodrome; Jo Brand is a genie in Aladdin at the New Wimbolden Theatre; Ray Quinn of X Factor and Dancing on Ice fame will appear as Peter Pan in the Liverpool Empire Theatre (perhaps an overly optimistic perception of his percieved popularity, given the venue seats 2,350 people.)
The other joy of pantomimes, often over-egged by the single enthusiastic family member responsible for whole rows of audiences, is that every show can be enjoyed “by all the family”. Combining traditional plots, two-dimensional characters and some magic-wand-based innuendos means there’s something for everyone – you’ll have an audience as well-mixed and beautifully rounded as a Christmas pudding.
Let’s not pretend that’s always the case, however. If you’re going to be shelling out more than £60 for four people of an evening, which you would have to to see, for example, Cinderella at the New Vic this year, you might be rather more tempted to ditch the theatre and have night in with the brandy butter. But price aside, the point of pantomime is accessiblity and, like Classic FM, gets some stick for this. It’s not “proper” theatre, if “proper” theatre disseminates some deep and meaningful Universal Message. Nobody dies in pantomime. Nobody soliloquises. Instead, in a long tradition of farce and stock characters which came from Italian travelling companies via Victorian theatre to be embedded in our most nostalgic and rose-tinted associations of childhood Christmases, people play around and have a good time. Generally they marry. Sometimes they throw sweets. It’s hardly a subtle critique of Stanislavski and the fourth wall, but it keeps the kiddies happy.
So if inclusivity is the one great thing about pantomimes, the reason it sweeps disproportionately through theatres in December and sends “urban arts electics” running for the hills, let us at least demonstrate some real levelling skills and bring the prices crashing down with the curtain. Then we might at last have some truly universal theatre.