By Rachel Savage
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -Like mince pies and mistletoe, pantomimes are a Christmas classic in Britain, and the stars of the cross-dressing comedy plays are determined to bring some festive cheer to the country's pandemic-hit theatres.
Theatres have been shuttered across much of Britain for months due to measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, hammering box office revenues. The pantomimes that are going ahead where rules allow hope to do their bit for languishing ticket sales.
"It's boosting morale, boosting funds for the theatre as well. So on those two levels alone it's worth struggling on and trying to get them on," said Ceri Dupree, a gay actor playing a "very glamorous" queen in a "Sleeping Beauty" pantomime production opening on Saturday.
"People want to go out and have a laugh (and) I've always said that the show must go on," Dupree said.
Many of the actors who perform in pantomimes, or pantos for short, are LGBT+ - with cross-dressing men playing motherly dames and the ugly sisters in classic tales such as "Cinderella".
Pantos have become big business in recent years, with rising numbers of celebrities taking on roles and more drag queens, whose popularity has grown with the success of U.S. TV show "RuPaul's Drag Race", playing dames.
Pantomimes sold more than 60 million pounds ($82 million) of tickets in the 2017/18 season, according to the latest data from industry body UK Theatre, which represents about 165 of the nation's biggest theatres.
Qdos Entertainment, which puts on Britain's largest pantos in regional theatres with thousands of seats, staged 31 performances last season and made a profit of 2.8 million pounds, its accounts show.
"If you're a theatre queen, it's massive," said Divina De Campo, a British drag queen and singer who was runner-up on "RuPaul's Drag Race UK" last year.
"There are drag queens out there (and) that's all they do all year ... they do their stint in panto and then they live off that for the rest of the year."
Pantomimes, or pantos for short, have their roots in Italian "commedia dell'arte" street theatre, with their modern form, with dames at the centre, becoming popular in Britain in the late 19th century.
They are normally staged in the run-up to Christmas and in the New Year period, but that has not been enough to shield them from the coronavirus crisis, and only about 10 of Qdos's big commercial productions are scheduled to go ahead this year.
Some pantos have been cancelled mid-run, including one in London that was attended by Prince William and his family and a government minister last week before being shut four days later due to new, stricter COVID-19 restrictions.
De Campo, who uses female pronouns in her drag persona, said having performed in "Sinderella", a pantomime for adults in January - before the coronavirus outbreak had spread widely - meant she had been able to get by this year.
She had been due to play Ariel in "The Little Mermaid" - dressed in her signature red wig and silver tail - in January, but the show has been postponed until October next year.
'OH YES IT WILL'
Panto-lovers who live in parts of the country where theatres are open will have to have their temperature measured at the entrance and wear face masks during the show, along with social distancing measures.
The "Sleeping Beauty" panto, a Qdos production taking place in the southern city of Southampton, is going ahead with 940 seats a night rather than the theatre's capacity of 2,280.
And on the stage, the Prince will not be kissing Sleeping Beauty to wake her up.
Even the traditional exchange of chants like "He's behind you" and "Oh no it won't/Oh yes it will" between the cast and the audience has fallen foul of the pandemic.
"We encourage them to clap their hands and stomp their feet and wave their arms in the air. But no shouting out," said Dupree, who has been in pantos for the last 16 years and calls himself a "female impersonator" rather than a drag queen.
Jamie Jones, who has been writing, directing and performing in pantos for eight years, is playing Dame Flora Furlough in "Christmas Cracker", a panto-themed variety show, in the northwestern coastal town of Barrow-in-Furness.
While the theatre will be at less than a quarter of its capacity due to the coronavirus curbs, Jones said it was "just joyous to be back rehearsing".
"We do poke fun at COVID, because that's what panto is - it's topical, it's all very witty and very silly," he said. "I think audiences will absolutely just devour it."
($1 = 0.7356 pounds)
(Reporting by Rachel Savage @rachelmsavage; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)