Every year in mid-November regional theatres across the UK prepare for the arrival of pantomime season: a festive tradition that dates back to the 18th century and brings family entertainment to cities all over the country in the lead up to Christmas. With many different pantomimes nationwide, lots of people have a local production that they visit every year, visiting the theatre with their family members and enjoying the annual jokes and puns that the theatre is known for. Fortunately panto is reasonably priced so tickets aren’t a huge cost for families, but this year with the cost of living crisis I am sure people will think twice before buying multiple tickets.
Last week I first heard about Peter Duncan’s (former Blue Peter presenter, actor and director) virtual pantomime ‘Panto Online’ which offers a front row pantomime seat from home. Families can purchase a ticket for £15.00, which grants them access to the last three virtual pantos that Peter Duncan has created: 2020’s Jack and the Beanstalk, 2021’s Cinderella and this year’s Pantoland. I received an invitation to the press screening of the 2022 digital panto this weekend and it was held at the luxurious Everyman Cinema in Broadgate, London. I was so intrigued by the idea of a virtual panto that I absolutely had to head into London for the press screening and find out what it would involve.
It goes without saying that Pantoland is aimed at children and the majority of the audience at the screening were families, so I appreciate that I am not the target audience for this piece of theatre. Peter Duncan’s Dame Dolly Doughnut is the central character and there isn’t much of a plot per se, with Pantoland instead featuring a compilation of various family friendly pantomime sketches. The sketches are unrelated minus a few characters that overlap between the scenes and there is limited humour thrown in for adults.
Despite this, Pantoland is very funny, partly due to the absurdity of the sketches, lack of clear direction and madness of it all, so I was pleasantly surprised to laugh so much throughout the hour of entertainment. There were continuity issues, specifically with the 12 days of Christmas song in the middle of the film (this would have worked better as the finale number), but Peter Duncan carried the show in his many appearances as the Dame and he managed to generate reaction in the audience in typical panto style, something that I had imagined impossible given the pre-recorded format.
Costumes, settings and props
Dame Dolly Doughnut had some absolutely fabulous costumes designed by Natalie Beaumont, specifically the London Underground inspired ensemble that she was wearing for the press launch. The Dame’s outfits brightened up the UK countryside sets and added a sense of panto familiarity to the outdoor sets.
So much of the show was filmed outside and I have since found out that one of the scenes was actually created in Peter Duncan’s own garden. Duncan really does live and breathe pantomime! It was so funny seeing Dame Dolly Doughnut out and about in different towns of the UK; passers by must have found the ordeal so peculiar.
The puppets in the last segment were very cute, but it was difficult to see what they added to the wider production. They were only featured towards the end of the film, so it seemed a little confusing having them solely appear for a sketch at the end. The Red Riding Hood retelling did make both my friend and I laugh though, with the puppets having a starring role.
Does the pre-recorded format work?
The magic of panto is the interaction between the performers and audience and given that the creative team had to allocate time for the ‘he’s behind you’ and ‘no he isn’t’ lines, the interactions were one-sided and rushed. It is difficult to predict the pace of responses so by no means is this an easy task, but the production team would have been safer to allocate more time, especially for the younger audience members that are slower to reply.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how many people in the audience did reply to the panto lines though, which makes me think that the digital pantomime would have a greater impact when watched in a group environment or setting. Whether it be a school, club or large family gathering, I think the panto needs to be seen with multiple other people. Everyone reacts differently to pre-recorded content and with more people, you could better recreate the spirit of live panto from your own screening.
Peter Duncan’s Pantoland* is absolutely bonkers, but it is light-hearted fun for the whole family. Personally I would have preferred to have seen a straightforward fairytale story like the last two years as I found the stories quite discontinuous, but I appreciated the intention to try something new.
Panto Online’s digital panto is available for purchase over on their website from Thursday (1st December), with separate pricing structures for families and community groups. A great way to make pantomime more accessible this Christmas, I am sure the efforts of Peter Duncan and team will be appreciated by lots of people across the country.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*I was invited to the press screening at the Everyman in exchange for a review of Pantoland.