Stage Sunday, November 29th Words by: Lauren Rogers, pictures by: Submitted

From Widemarsh Street to Drury Lane: how Herefordshire helped shape panto

Stage Sunday, November 29th

From Widemarsh Street to Drury Lane: how Herefordshire helped shape panto

The great British pantomime has evolved over centuries - and Herefordshire helped shape it. Here's a potted history of how a man born in Widemarsh Street played a major role in panto's past.

Have mercy, Jesu! Soft! I did but dream. O coward conscience, how dost thou afflict me! – Shakespeare's Richard III Act V, Sc. 3. William Hogarth's portrait of Hereford-born David Garrick, in the role which made him famous.

From am-dram productions to Z-list celebrity vehicles, pantos are silly, subversive, loud and proud.

The artform has been traced back to commedia dell’arte – the Italian improvised street theatre dating back to the 16th century, but changes appeared as soon as the shows reached English soil. Within a couple of centuries, panto had ingrained itself into British culture.

And it was during the 1700s that Hereford-born actor and theatre manager David Garrick played a major role in shaping the shows.

Garrick came into this world at the Angel Inn in Widemarsh Street in 1717. He loved theatre as a youngster, but after going school in Lichfield moved to London to help run the family wine businesses. He couldn’t, however, shake that childhood dream of standing in the spotlight and soon turned his attention back to the stage.

He made his debut in Richard III at the Goodman’s Fields Theatre in East London in October 1741 – finding fame almost instantly.

Six years later he became manager of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and it was here that he staged ‘Harlequinns Invasion’, a show that many call the first proper panto.

Drury Lane theatre is also credited for being the first to cast a woman as the principal boy, kick-starting a traditional which continues today. Gender swapping wasn’t new to theatre; boys played young women and love interests in Ancient Greece. But Drury Lane was a premier panto producer in the 18th century and Garrick’s influence carried weight.

Two hundred years later, our Aladdins and Dick Whittingtons are still played by women in tight-fitting breeches.

When he died in 1779, Garrick was laid to rest in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. The Hereford boy had made his mark.

In her feature on panto history for the University of York, Professor Jane Moody wrote about the fashions and styles that influenced modern panto, from chequered harlequins to the 'King of Clowns' Joseph Grimaldi.

“The raw energy of music hall, the sauciness of Victorian burlesque, the crazy chase of the harlequinade, the acrobatic power of John Rich, the archetypal plots of commedia,” she said.

“All these elements have shaped the pantomimes we enjoy today. The story of pantomime is a story of transformation and endless adaptation."

A couple of years ago there was talk of cross-dressing dames and principal boys disappearing. ‘Productions do away with characters as they bid to become more politically correct’ declared the Daily Mail, whipping up a mini pantoland panic. 

Fortunately the madcap roles endure and whether it’s the Danny La Rue, the Hoff, or Ian McKellan, dames remain at the heart of the show

While music hall comedian Dan Leno (1860 -1904) is widely credited for creating the character we'd recognise in 2015, www.its-behind-you.com believes the Queen of Misrule's characteristics – family-friendly but a little risqué - were born when older men would play older women for laughs in the 16th century, a convention that continued into the c17th with many young actresses less than keen to fast forward the clock.

In Michael Grade’s 2012 BBC doc about dames, there was an 1861 photograph of Widow Twankey – her costume is rather plain, said Grade, but the basic elements are there and within a few decades the likes of Leno and Sir George Robey (1869 – 1954) had set the standard, leading the way for the likes of Jason Marc-Williams - the young actor currently playing the Dame in the Courtyard's production of Beauty and the Beast.

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