The link between theatre and racism has been such a huge talking point on the internet for the past few years, that the subject now feels self-explanatory. I seem to read about a new case of an amateur production being whitewashed or casual acts of racism in theatre every week. The issue is especially pertinent to pantomime.
The modern pantomime is a form of theatre based almost entirely on traditions and stereotypes – not necessarily racial stereotypes, but more gender and social ones. Every pantomime has the same one-dimensional characters with the same melodramatic acting, the same story-beats, the same jokes and innuendos and, depending on where in the country you’re from, the same recurring actors.
Every pantomime has the same one-dimensional characters with the same melodramatic acting
So here’s a personal story. I grew up in Walsall in the West Midlands in a white working-class family and since we don’t have a professional theatre in our town, we used to go to nearby Wolverhampton or Birmingham. I saw a few pantomimes with John Barrowman trying to sound as Brummie as he possibly could, and somebody from the most recent year of Strictly Come Dancing always ends up in the Wolverhampton panto. But the newest regular on the West Midlands pantomime scene is Doreen Tipton, the self-proclaimed ‘Lazy Cow’ and ‘Queen of The Black Country’.
A local legend, the character is played by Staffordshire actress Gill Jordan. She is supposed to be a parody of the kinds of people you see on shows like Benefits Street or Jeremy Kyle (since many are often from the Black Country/Birmingham area and these types of shows are sadly the only significant media representation we get, aside from Peaky Blinders). The jokes are always that she’s lazy, scheming and physically repulsive – make of that what you will.
She is supposed to be a parody of the kinds of people you see on shows like Benefits Street or Jeremy Kyle
Her first pantomime appearance was as the ‘Lazy Empress of China’ in Aladdin at the Wolverhampton Grand Theatre in 2016, despite the story not being set in China. She wore a stereotypical robe-and-headpiece which looked like a Halloween costume. But underneath, she still had the hoop earrings, trainers and greasy hair; she still came waddling on stage moaning about her benefits being cut (or something along those lines); and she still had a thick Black Country accent. So overall I would hardly have considered it cultural appropriation or stereotyping. Her mockery was of the stereotype surrounding people from our area, most of whom were sat there laughing with her in the audience.
Jordan has played the exact same character in every pantomime since then, but with a different costume and name. These character archetypes aren’t attempting to portray any culture of people aside from English people. By using foreign, clichéd or even downright ridiculous characters it allows the actors to mask the fact that they’re actually making fun of the audience, and not necessarily unfamiliar or fantastical elements that would cross the line into cultural appropriation or discrimination.
These character archetypes aren’t attempting to portray any culture of people aside from English people
I’m not saying that representation in pantomimes is unimportant or not needed – quite the opposite. And I’m also not saying that no pantomime is being insensitive and it’s all some ‘leftist snowflake agenda’, because there have been productions which have overstepped the line. For example, the Wishee and Washee stereotypes of Chinese workers still exist in some professional pantomimes and there are a few examples of amateur productions using brown-face and yellow-face. One of the most recent cases surrounded the Civic Hall in Bedworth advertising on Spotlight to cast two characters called ‘Chow Mein Slave of the Ring’ and ‘Officer Pong Ping’ in their pantomime this year (these names have since been changed).
But this is no longer common-place. Plenty of pantomimes are becoming more varied and diverse: for example this year’s Peter Pan at the Birmingham Hippodrome features British-Indian comedian Meera Syal, as well as an all-black acrobatic troupe called The Timbuktu Tumblers.
Political incorrectness is a trope of pantomime since it is a backbone of British comedy, but there is a fine line between political incorrectness and light commentary, and downright bigotry. The best thing for creative teams to do would be to encourage a more diverse cast to audition for all roles, and then adapt the existing source material and formula. This is the only way that professional pantomime has a chance of surviving in its current form.