When a pantomime dame, sporting a Marge Simpson-style beehive, is let loose with a whoopie cushion and a rubber chicken, you know this is going to be no ordinary school assembly.
To the Bradford schoolchildren sitting cross-legged on the floor erupting into peals of laughter, this was a fun way to start the day. But as well as that, it was a crucial part of their literacy
studies. Oh yes it was!
It was all part of a pantomime roadshow touring Bradford primary schools, introducing Key Stage Two youngsters to the magic of live theatre and the traditions of storytelling.
The roadshow was brought to the city by Bradford Theatres, which is providing 100 free seats for this year’s Alhambra pantomime for each of the 11 local schools involved with the scheme.
Bradford Theatres general manager Adam Renton said the aim was to engage with children who may not normally get the chance to see a pantomime. “I saw the roadshow at a school in Hull last year and
loved it,” he said. “I decided to find funding to bring it here, and take it even further. We’re providing seats for 1,100 Bradford children at matinee performances, with transport.
“We chose 11 primary schools around the district and, subject to financial support, we’ll continue the scheme for three years in different schools. Ideally, we’d love to keep it going until as many
children as possible have been involved. “The roadshow is an introduction to panto, and some of the history behind it, and there’s a teaching package which schools can use in the classroom prior to
a panto visit.
“This is purely a starting point,” added Mr Renton. “We want children who have never seen a pantomime to experience the magic of live entertainment, we’re engaging children who may not normally be
engaged. Panto is one of the best things at breaking down barriers.
“We’ll be asking the children who come along with schools to write letters about their panto experience which we plan to display in the theatre.” The roadshow presentation, which has been touring
schools around the country, was presented by Nigel Ellacott and Peter Robbins, two of the country’s top ‘Ugly Sisters’, and Andrew Ryan, a leading pantomime dame and director. The performers work
for Qdos, the company behind this year’s Alhambra panto, Cinderella.
I visited Bowling Park Primary School in Bradford, joining a hall full of excited children for a 45-minute performance offering a taste of panto.
From the moment the Bugs Bunny theme tune filled the air, the youngsters, aged seven and eight, were enthralled. Their school hall had been transformed with a set re-creating the Alhambra’s
backstage area where preparations were under way for a pantomime.
The ‘director’ kicked off with a comedy routine, before throwing questions out to the children: “What do you call an actor who stands in for another actor?” he called. “A substitute,” one boy said.
“It starts with ‘under’,” said the director. “An undertaker,” said another child.
Through panto-style audience interaction, the children learned about what goes into a theatrical production, from script to make-up.
The characters, including a luvvie actor in a green checked suit, a comedy rapper and an Ugly Sister called Trinny in garish bloomers, pulled various props out of a ‘skip’ (apparently it’s a wicker
props basket used backstage – something I learned from the show), and one of the actors applied his stage make-up, explaining the process as he went along.
Pantomime gags came thick and fast, and the history and traditions of the genre were explained to the children.
Props included a rubber shark, plastic dolls called Wayne and Colleen, a whoopie cushion and a skull cheekily referred to as Victoria Beckham. “That’s well funny!” shouted a little boy sitting near
me, convulsed with laughter. An Anne Robinson-style villain hosted a quiz, followed by teacher Fran Andrews joining the cast to read comic poems. The performance ended with a rousing panto
singalong, involving children and their teachers. In the second half the actors returned as themselves and took questions from pupils. Some of the youngsters were dressed up as pantomime
characters, parading through the hall in their costumes.
The children learned about Alhambra founder Sir Francis Laidler and the history of the theatre’s pantomime and its famous Sunbeams.
“The idea is to entertain and educate,” said performer Andrew Ryan, who was born in Bradford and went to Heaton St Barnabas School.
“Pantomime is often children’s first experience of theatre, so it’s important that you get it right. When panto is done properly it’s a magical experience for children, but sometimes it can be
“There’s a huge responsibility with panto because if it engages and entertains children, hopefully they’ll be inspired to return to the theatre. It has to be about truth and belief; children
believe in what they see on stage.
“This roadshow is an introduction to live theatre and a way of helping children learn about traditions of storytelling.”
Jo Woodhead, assistant headteacher of Bowling Park Primary School, said the performance fitted in with Key Stage Two literacy studies focusing on the traditions of oral storytelling.
“We’ve been going back to the notion of what a story is and teaching children to tell stories out loud,” she said.
“Repetition is a part of panto and that helps children remember stories. Some of the older children have been looking at Cinderella from a modern perspective, so this performance enhances that too.
“Our school is split on to two sites, so this presentation has enabled pupils to come together, which they don’t normally get chance to do.
Nathan Smith, ten, was dressed as Mr Smee from Peter Pan. “I thought the show was funny, I liked the rapper best,” he grinned.
Umar Khan, also ten, sparkled in a Prince Charming costume. “It’s good to learn about the theatre, and how they make a pantomime,” he said.
Shaida Razaq, nine, twirled around in her fairy godmother dress. “It was funny. I liked the man in the big dress,” she said.
In an age when many children spend their leisure time staring into computer screens in their bedrooms, live theatre offers important social interaction.
“It’s a shared experience,” said Mr Renton. “Panto is often children’s first experience of theatre, it’s something they never forget. I remember my first panto as a child and being embarrassed
because the pantomime cow sat on my mum’s knee. It’s something that has stayed with me.
“Even now, if I’m feeling miserable I sit and watch a bit of panto, and it lifts me. What better job could I have than seeing 1,200 children leave the theatre happy after a pantomime?”
Other schools the roadshow visited included Ley Top Primary School in Bradford. Headteacher Jan Pollard welcomed the scheme.
“Without this type of subsidy our children would never have these opportunities and, as a relatively small school, pantomime would usually be out of our league,” she said.
Any schools interested in finding out more about the pantomime roadshow scheme should ring Elizabeth Hall or Sue Holgate on (01274) 432375. For more about the roadshow presentation, visit