THIS YEAR has been a challenging one with so much adaptation needed in our lives and a very different, somewhat scaled-back, Christmas upon us.
So it was welcome news when the Birmingham Stage Company announced it would be putting on its ‘A Horrible Christmas’ pantomime inspired by the series of Horrible Histories children’s books by Terry Deary.
Panto is intrinsically embedded in the British festive season, passed down from one generation to another over the years.
In recent weeks we have seen outdoor pantos (thankfully it’s relatively mild at the moment but temperatures will drop as we near January) and a virtual video version of the genre.
Now it’s time for the drive-in panto to take centre stage.
As we arrived it quickly became apparent what a logistical task staging a drive-in panto would be for the organisers
The wide open space of the Ricoh Arena car park provided ample space for social distancing but the stage, screen or both needed to be seen by every person in every car.
To be fair it was very well organised and we could see the screen mainly and the stage as well. We followed instructions to tune our radio to the designated frequency and the soundtrack was there in the car ready for the actors to perform.
The story itself centred on young boy Watson who is tasked with saving Christmas – not just once but, in true Horrible Histories style, throughout different eras from the past.
Ably assisted by super sleuth Shirley Holmes the pair used a time machine to journey back to Yuletides of days gone by – from Victorian England with Charles Dickens and the Stuart era when Oliver Cromwell and his puritans banned Christmas to ancient Turkey and finally the big day itself in Bethlehem.
All the time Watson, Shirley and Buster the Blue-nosed Reindeer were travelling back, so was Sidney who was trying to wreck Christmas in each of the eras.
The Birmingham Stage Company had clearly thought of every ingredient which needed to be included and, like all good pantos, it had audience participation at the centre.
Sadly we could not have the booing, hissing, cheering and clapping – instead we had car light flashing and horn beeping which, even as an adult of 44, was plenty of fun.
We also had the singalong (albeit in our bubbles in the safety of our own car) with the words appearing on the screen and actions being demonstrated on stage and screen by the actors to accompany the lyrics (we did them in our car which was also enjoyable).
The tunes were catchy, the one-liners were plentiful, there were local references to Coventry and – of course – some humorous gags on all the topical subjects – Covid-19, Brexit and Donald Trump.
The added bonus of this well-written and well-produced panto was the educational aspect – as we journeyed back through the ages we found out about (or were reminded of) why our Christmas today is the way it is (St Nicholas, transforming into Santa Claus / Father Christmas, him being dressed in green until turning red in 1931 because of a certain soft drink advert etc). No doubt the parents were thinking ‘oh yes’ (having forgotten these facts), while the children asked ‘is that true?’.
The way it was produced – in the now renowned quirky Horrible Histories style – was a lovely aspect of this production – let’s face it, we all need some kind of familiarity or normality this year.
The only thing missing – probably because it would not fit into that style – was the raucous romping, double entendre and innuendo which sometimes leads to some awkward questions for parents when they are sat there trying to hide the giggles while their offspring quiz them with detective tenacity about why they are laughing.
Some parents will probably prefer it that way.
I’m not going to lie – I will be glad to get back to the traditional panto we have all come to know and love in a theatre (when circumstances allow).
But all in all, the Birmingham Stage Company did a fantastic job with the UK’s first drive-in panto – three cheers for everyone involved who ensured we did not have a panto-less festive season.
Now that would have been a Horrible Christmas.
The drive-in panto tour
There are some tickets available for the Horrible Christmas tour at www.ticketmaster.co.uk/car-park-panto
Next up is Exeter Racecourse (Friday, December 18), Bristol Airport (Saturday and Sunday, December 19 and 20), Cheltenham Racecourse on Monday, December 21, Bath and West Showground, Shepton Mallet, Tuesday, December 22, Newbury Racecourse, December 23 and Knebworth House, December 24.
It then heads after Christmas to Manchester, Aintree, Middlesbrough and Edinburgh before concluding its run in January at Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire.