As much as I’d love to boast that I grew up on a diet of Shakespeare and Greek tragedy, the truth is that my first proper exposure to live theatre came through the strange and colourful world of pantomime. I was introduced to this world when taken to the Nuffield Theatre while staying with my grandparents in Southampton during the festive period. Without this regular seasonal entertainment, I might never have discovered my passion for theatre and performance, which now includes Shakespeare, Sophocles, Euripides, and the rest of that highbrow lot.
In fact, one could argue that broad humour, character archetypes, and use of music position the modern pantomime as a descendant of Aristophanic comedy, albeit with a more family-friendly angle. As a small child, however, I couldn’t have cared less about that. What drew me in were the lights, the sounds and even the smells of the theatre; the scent of dry ice and whatever they used to clean the seats stirs up memories of childhood winters just as much as that of mice pies or burning Chanukah candles.
The earliest play I can recall seeing was a production of The Wizard of Oz, more of a musical than a pantomime. I was five years old at the time, and from the moment the curtain rose I was completely enthralled by the brightly coloured costumes and grand musical numbers. I already knew the story but, even so, I sat with bated breath when Dorothy stepped out of her house into a mystical new land, sure that she wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
The highlight of the play came when the Wicked Witch of the West, in an attempt to foil the plans of Dorothy and her friends, destroyed the yellow brick road. In their desperation, the characters on stage called upon the children of the audience to come up and help them piece the road back together from pieces of yellow paper scattered around the auditorium. Never one to miss an opportunity to show off, I was out of my seat in a shot, thrilled at the chance to see all this magic up close. I was welcomed up on stage by Dorothy herself, and diligently placed my piece of yellow card down in its place. Even in the minute or so that I was standing on that stage, I felt there was something intoxicating about the lights and the sight of the filled auditorium.
After that my anticipation of these annual events grew. The stories told at the Nuffield in the pantomime season were not always the typical fairy tales associated with the genre. There was a trend towards adaptations of children’s literature, and I still remember fondly productions of Treasure Island, James and the Giant Peach, and The Borrowers, as well as more recent productions like Fantastic Mr Fox and Merlin (unrelated to the BBC television show of the same name). The appeal was in part the familiarity of these stories, but also the creativity and innovation with which they were translated to the stage. Combinations of puppetry and clever costume work brought talking animals to life, while a clever piece of set design enabled The Borrowers to switch seamlessly from our world to that of the titular characters, in which all the same props and furniture were magically oversized.
With hindsight I realise that the actors in these plays were incredibly skilled performers, telling the story often while providing their own musical accompaniment, endlessly switching between different roles, and making sure that even the smallest child in the audience would be completely absorbed in the narrative. Alongside these seasoned professionals, several productions included a cast of children from local youth theatre groups. They were usually part of the chorus, although in one memorable scene from Treasure Island (that I’m sure isn’t in the original novel) they played singing parrots. Initially I felt almost jealous of these children, but now I appreciate that their inclusion made the plays even more of a community event, and provided an incredible opportunity to act in a family friendly production on a professional stage.
Unfortunately, my sentimental recollections of these plays are now rather poignant, as the Nuffield Theatre closed its doors for good in May 2020. The Coronavirus pandemic has hit theatres across the country, although the Nuffield was in fact already facing financial difficulties, with a loss of funding and significant redundancies. The impact of its closure is twofold; on the one hand, many individuals working in performance, tech, and front of house have lost their livelihoods. In addition to this, Southampton has been deprived of an almost 60-year-old cultural institution.
Given the social conditions created by the pandemic, there is a very real concern that such closures will be replicated many times in the coming months and years. Socially distanced audiences will mean a considerable loss of profit from reduced ticket sales, and many punters may feel uncomfortable sitting in any kind of large audience. All these issues, which face large scale West End theatres, pose an even more acute threat for smaller, regional theatres with a lower profile. Many pantomimes, which are often central to a theatre’s yearly income, have been cancelled this year, not only depriving families of a Christmas tradition but also putting the theatres themselves at risk. These institutions are central to the cultural landscape of their communities. A report of 13 leading regional theatres just prior to the pandemic found that despite significant cuts, they were doing more than ever to provide educational services, support for artists and companies, and services to the broader community, as well as staging productions with “growing and diversifying audiences”.
Some of the most formative memories of my childhood were created in the auditorium of the Nuffield Theatre. I only hope that we can protect regional theatres so that young audience members continue to experience that same wonder and excitement for years to come.
This is an instalment in the series ‘Plays That Made Me’ from theatre editor Georgie Dettmer in which writers celebrate and explore the live theatre that has remained with them to this day.