Search the Circa Theatre website:
1 Taranaki Street, Wellington | Box Office Ph: 04 801 7992

The Magic of The Circa Pantomime

Comment are off

By Kerryn Palmer

Bronwyn Turei as Dandini, Cinderella 2020/21 Image by Stephen A’Court


If you attended Circa’s recent production of Cinderella you would know what this magic spell stands for – you always get a happy conclusion when you have lovely friends on your side. Originally used in Michele Amas’s Mother Goose, it is one of several recurring conventions employed in Circa Theatre’s Christmas pantomime, now in its 17th year of production. This article outlines the history of what is now a firmly entrenched Circa tradition and examines what magical ingredients have combined to make the pantomime a successful annual event, that caters to an intergenerational family audience.

The arrival of Europeans heralded the introduction of a new style of live performance to Aotearoa. Vastly different from the indigenous Whare Tapere, European dramatic performance was unleashed on our shores a mere 12-months after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi [1]. It is, therefore, no surprise that pantomime – based on the Italian Commedia dell’arte, but adapted by the English in the 1700s – was an early populist form of entertainment in New Zealand. What is surprising is its longevity, and how in 2021, Pantomime is still a popular and much-loved form of entertainment in Aotearoa.

J C Williamson Ltd present Frank Neil’s stupendous Drury Lane fairy pantomime “Cinderella”. Theatre Royal Christchurch, com. Friday night, July 28th. Wright & Jaques Ltd., Printers, Auckland [Front and back covers. 1933]. Cabot, Charles Henry, 1890-1978: [Collection of ephemera, posters and programmes. 1900-1976]. Ref: Eph-B-CABOT-Pantomime-1933-01-covers. Permission from: The Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23191137

Wellington’s Circa Theatre is arguably the most prolific professional company upholding the grand tradition of pantomime in contemporary New Zealand. For 16 years the annual Christmas pantomime has been delighting intergenerational audiences on the waterfront. With no signs of abating, it boasts Circa’s largest houses of the year and regularly sells over 50% of tickets before it opens. It is also Circa’s longest running show each year, with the actors and crew performing for an exhausting and exhilarating seven weeks (five before Christmas and two in early January). Gavin Rutherford’s – world famous in Wellington – Dame drives each show with aplomb and for just under two hours each night, seven seasoned performers fill the stage with music, magic movement, topical jokes, and general silliness.

Growing up in England in the 1950s, the Christmas pantomime was an annual event for Roger Hall. He remembers attending with his parents and loved that it was a shared theatrical experience that both generations could enjoy. In 2003, an after-show foyer conversation between Roger, Paul Jenden, and Susan Wilson unearthed collective childhood memories of pantomimes, and recognition of how their delight and enjoyment of them, had influenced their choice of career.  From this conversation, the idea to present a professional, contemporary, annual family show, using the traditional English pantomime form was born.

In the 1950s, Wellington’s Repertory Theatre began producing Christmas Pantomimes (“Past Productions”). These were led by the memorable and fabulous David Tinkham.

Pantomime Production

George Webby referred to Tinkham as; “one of the finest pantomime dames I ever came across… a big man, David made an even bigger dame, commanding the stage with his obvious and infectious enjoyment” (Webby 202). Theatre stalwarts Kate Harcourt, and Ginette MacDonald also reveal the influence that Tinkham had on their careers, describing him as “legendary” (McDonald) and an “inspired director” (Harcourt qtd. in O’Donnell). Tinkham’s partner in crime for several years was Peter Harcourt, together they directed and produced innumerable pantomimes, utilising Harcourt’s dry wit, knowledge of theatre and popular music, and Tinkham’s improvisation talent and legendary Dameness. (Webby 202). Attending these shows annually, was a young Susan Wilson. She has fond memories of them being huge extravaganzas, boasting large casts of children and of principal boy – Dorothy Mc Kegg’s – ‘marvelous tights-clad legs.’(Wilson).

Two years after Paul, Roger, and Susan’s epiphany in the theatre foyer, the inaugural Circa Pantomime was launched. Bursting onto the stage in 2005 came Roger Hall’s Cinderella, with songs by Paul Jenden and music by Michael Nicholas Williams. Instead of one traditional dame, this inaugural production had three dame-like characters; Ellie Smith as the Fairy Godmother, and playing the Ugly sisters – Timothy Bartlett as Obetia and Robert Tripe as Di-aphanite. (The more traditional single Dame character came into force in 2006, which saw Julian Wilson delight audiences for three years in a row.) A Helen Clarke Labour-led government saw the inclusion of such topical gems as;

“Catering! Everything reasonable is booked up! Pita Sharples Take Away Kai; Don Brash’s Take Away Chinese; and Winston Peters Bugger Off Curries. A caterer, a caterer, my kingdom for a caterer!!”

“And “Jonathan Hunt would have been here but he’s been detained by a narrow doorway.” (Hall, Cinderella)

The addition of topical political jokes or references to the contemporary political climate are just one of the fundamental principles that make up the trope of Pantomime. Winston Peters has enjoyed his fair share of mentions in the Circa Pantomime and the 2020/21 version, very topically involved hero of the COVID pandemic Ashley Bloomfield. Hall writes: [Insert Topical joke here] in his scripts so that they can be updated each time they are performed, and the recent Cinderella script is prefaced with:

“Topical references: This show was written for Wellington in 2020 in the midst of a global pandemic when Doctor Ashley Bloomfield was our hero and the world was shut down. The story is solid but there will be topical references that won’t work for everywhere. Feel free to have a tweak and make it relevant to your time and location. (Leary and Rutherford)”

This flexibility means that the scripts have a life outside of their Circa season and will often go on to be performed throughout New Zealand by local repertory groups. For example, Central Hawke’s Bay Waipawa Music and Drama Club has committed to a Hall pantomime for the third successive year. In 2019, they did his Jack and the Beanstalk (including the Jenden and Williams’ songs). Hall was so pleased to see an intergenerational audience of around 300, as well as a cast of 30; that he offered to do a version of Cinderella set in Waipawa. This was very successful, and this year it is Aladdin that has a Hawkes Bay setting.

Other fundamentals that have been borrowed from the traditional pantomime form are: using a well-known story, local references- again interchangeable – romance, cross dressing, audience interaction, and music.

Michael Nicholas Williams has been the musical director for 14 of Circa’s Pantomimes. A dynamic and enthusiastic musician, Michael began collaborating with Paul Jenden in co-writing original songs for each show. Cinderella: Version One had 14 original songs. The opening song- perhaps in recognition of this being the beginning of a new Wellington tradition – guided the audience in what they were about to experience:

It’s a wonderful world

In pantomime

There’s fantasy unfurled

In pantomime

Women wearing stockings

Playing men may be shocking

But it’s all part of being in pantomime

It’s a topsy turvy world

In pantomime

There are men playing girls

In pantomime

All the actors will be beaming

While the audience is screaming

But it’s all part of being in pantomime

There’ll be singing and some roaring

You all have to join in

Don’t be shy or feel afraid

There’ll be pretty sets and costumes

Catchy songs and hot tunes

Lots of mayhem to be made

There is nothing in the world like pantomime

All the little girls and boys like pantomime

Though the story is quite crazy

And the jokes are sometimes racy

This is all part of being.

You won’t believe what you’ll be seeing

But it’s all part of being in pantomime. (Hall, Cinderella)

The writing of original songs continued until 2017’s Peter Pan, which saw a return to pantomime tradition of using contemporary pop songs. This has been the modus operandi since then, and if the joyous dancing, singing, and revelry from the audience at 2020/21’s Cinderella is anything to go by, then it’s a hugely popular choice.

“As much as I liked writing scores for the earlier shows, having familiar pop songs (and using them in an unexpected way) has really added another level. I love watching the audience when they hear a song from their teenage years that they haven’t thought about for decades, and you can see the joy. (Williams)”

Circa’s pantomimes have always been based on a well-known, traditional story or fairytale. The merits of presenting a well-known story are that they are, according to Hall, ‘damn good stories,’ and that the classic Hero’s Journey template means that people have a fair idea of what they are coming to see. Perhaps this means they can relax in the knowledge that the narrative is in safe hands and therefore focus on the elements of theatricality that help bring the story to life on stage. To date there have been three versions of Cinderella, two of Jack and The Beanstalk, two Red Riding Hoods, two Robin Hoods, two Aladdins as well as a Puss in Boots, a Mother Goose, a Dick Whittington and His Cat, a Peter Pan, and one Alice In Wonderland.

Mother Goose, 2013. Image by Stephen A’Court

With the exception of Mother Goose – written by Michele Amas in 2013 – Roger Hall penned all pantomimes up until 2017, when Pinky Agnew and Lorae Parry wrote Peter Pan. Twenty nineteen saw panto. stalwarts Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford collaborate to write Alice In Wonderland. They are now working on their third collaboration to be announced soon. When asked to pick a favourite, stage manager extraordinaire Eric Gardiner – who has stage managed all 16 – chose the most recent, Leary and Rutherford’s Cinderella, with Mother Goose coming a close second. He explains how being written in-house makes a difference as the authors know the theatre and its limitations. Gardiner is perhaps the unsung hero of the Circa Pantomime. For 16 years, he has been the trusted and hardworking stage manager and always has a delightful cameo sometime in the show. Fondly written into the scripts with directions such as:

The conveniently placed frog turns into a weathered old man (The stage manager Eric)



Eric hops off. Probably grumbling. Wondering what his life has come to.

(Leary and Rutherford.)

In past years he would often be accompanied by the beautiful Precious (Gardiner’s Golden Lab.) who would amble on stage to delight the audience at some stage during the show. Asked why he continued to do the pantomime each year Gardiner replied:

“Personally, I really enjoy the involvement, not only as stage manager, but quite often taking part in the action on stage! It’s always a very busy production with set pieces coming and going all the time and that suits me. The cast generally help with this, making it truly a combined effort; cast and backstage.” (Gardiner)

Eric Gardiner in Robin Hood 2010/11. Image by Stephen A’Court

As with any long-held tradition and in particular such a Eurocentric one, it is important to interrogate the relevance of Pantomime in contemporary New Zealand. There is no escaping that pantomime is a problematic genre. Fairy tales are built on misogyny, there is a lack of diversity of characters, in particular in terms of people of colour, and is all that cross-dressing PC? In a 2013 Guardian article titled “Hands Off Our Panto Dames. Cross-Dressing Offers a Vital License for Subversion,” self-proclaimed cross-dresser Grayson Perry provides some interesting insights into this area of the debate.

“Pantomime and its cross-dressing traditions spring out of that long tradition of carnival and subversion; a time when everything went topsy-turvy, people were able to mock their rulers, everything became anarchic. That’s where it comes from. And interestingly, cross-dressing still has that potency. As a cross-dresser myself, I know it’s a license to cause mischief, and that’s part of the role you take on.” (Perry)

He acknowledges that it is tricky territory, some people struggle with the concept of it being an always comedic role, but for him the genuine outrageousness of the Pantomime Dame is, it is a way of edging into “darker territory, without causing serious offence… It’s the honest fool thing; that’s part of what it’s about. (Perry)

Using in-house creators – such as Michele Amas, Simon Leary and Gavin Rutherford – has opened the way for collaborators to challenge and change stereotypes and tropes. For example; Mother Goose saw the introduction of the first gay character, this year’s Dandini uses the pronouns they/them, and Leary and Rutherford’s Cinderella script is prefaced with a note on diversity:

“We encourage you to cast the show diversely, panto. is a great way to play with gender. The step siblings don’t have to be the same ethnicity either. Have fun with it.” (Leary and Rutherford)

Circa has also begun to offer relaxed [2] and signed [3] performances, in an effort to be more inclusive and ensure that their pantomimes are as accessible as possible.

Working in a more collaborative way in rehearsal, casting diversely, and being open to input from all creatives in the rehearsal room, are all ways that traditional forms can be challenged and subverted.  Much of the early weeks of rehearsal are spent improvising on the floor and the benefits of having writers such as Gavin and Simon writing and performing is that things can be trialed and hashed out in the rehearsal room. Like many New Zealand plays, the staging of them observes a strong collaboration between director and playwright. The director will often provide dramaturgical script guidance as well as overseeing the cast and production elements. Eric recalls how:

“During rehearsals, which is always a hilarious time, the script is being cut and pasted continuously, and quite often we don’t get the final draft until late in production week! Even then changes are regularly happening during the season,” (Gardiner)

This form of flexible and collaborative rehearsing needs a skilled captain at the helm. The indefatigable Susan Wilson leads the Circa pantomime team each year. Her love of the old-style Pantomimes, her belief in them as a way of getting children to the theatre and to love the theatre, has been one of the reasons she has continued each year.  Having worked with Roger Hall as a dramaturg and script editor on Gliding On in the 1970s, Susan worked closely with Roger and Paul in the early years to develop this strong tradition.  She relishes that her concept of instilling a love of theatre in children has proven true, and that the Pantomime appeals to an intergenerational audience. As a founding member of the Circa Council, she finds it hugely satisfying that the annual Pantomime is financially rewarding for Circa. It boasts their highest box office return each year, and it is a huge source of pride to Circa how many families now value it as an annual family tradition. Circa Councillor Lyndee-Jane Rutherford especially loves seeing adults who came as young children, now bringing their own kids, and how it has become an annual tradition for many families, with outings including up to four generations. (Rutherford LJ)

Sarah Somerville as Dandini in Cinderella 2005/2006. Image by Stephen A’Court

The traditional format of Pantomime incorporates three key narrative elements; Romance, Magic, and Clown and Circa embrace each of these elements in its productions. Romance, a key element in fairy tales, usually tells heteronormative stories of first love. Good conquering bad and a man and a woman overcoming adversity to live happily ever after in wedded bliss. Cinderella is the perfect example of this with its rags to riches story and as Roger Hall notes ‘People love the show to end with a wedding.’  Hall sees the importance of writing in the love-interest early on in the script and from that first eye contact, the first look there is a ‘clang of a triangle’ and cupid’s arrow can be felt winding its way between the two main characters.

The magical or transformative elements of the pantomime are also fully entrenched in Circa’s productions. High production values are guaranteed, in particular in terms of costume. The design of these was Paul Jenden’s domain until 2012 when it was expertly taken up by Shelia Horton. Michael Nicholas Williams describes the power that the transformative element in the costume can have:

There was a glorious moment in last year’s Cinderella when Cinders’ dress transformed before our eyes and one night there was a little girl in the front row whose mind was blown. She sat there for the next 2 minutes (missing our awesome song!) with her eyes bugged out and jaw dropped with a mixture of amazement and almost fear. (Williams)

Natasha McAllister as Cinderella transformed.2020/21. Image by Stephen A’Court

Gavin Rutherford delights in the clown and lazzi [4] elements of traditional Pantomime and since 2010 has embraced his inner clown in the performance of his much-loved dame. Each year for the past 11 years Rutherford has donned his Dame persona and delighted audiences with her acerbic, smutty, and narcissistic wit. It is a delight to watch Rutherford work a crowd. Masterful in improvisation, connecting with an audience, and keeping the action flowing, the audience feels in safe hands with his skillful manipulation of narrative and cheeky asides. Each year the dame is slightly different and yet the same, giving the audience a touchstone. Rutherford is so good at playing up the grotesque and revelling in his inner clown that it is easy to forget he is also a fine ‘serious’ actor with a slew of awards under his belt. It’s also easy to overlook how gruelling it must be to don such an elaborate costume and wig for each night nearly 50 times in a row. It’s hard to imagine a better dame and it seems Rutherford has categorically succeeded in taking over the mantle from Tinkham. Gavin revels in the character that he has created: “The Dame makes me laugh; she’s just so messed up – she’s such a dick!” (Rutherford)

             Asked what is it about the Pantomime that appeals, parents and children alike relate how the music, dance and comedy combine to create a wonderful evening out:

“It’s just got everything in it. Music, dance, comedy. A really great show. Lots of energy and lots of laughs.”

 “Well written, well played. Very, very funny. Brilliantly and hilariously improvised at one point during the performance I saw. The last pantomime I saw was at the London Palladium – this was better than that.”

“This was the best show we had all seen in a very long time! Probably the thing we enjoyed most was the actors’ ability to relate to the audience and tailor jokes to current events.”

“We love the dame!! The whole cast is always amazing. It had a very different feel to it this year with the music, but we thought it was HILARIOUS. We are used to having the original songs and my kids are still singing ‘The Undies for Africa’ song from ALADDIN. We had visitors from the UK with us this year and they said this was hands down the BEST panto. they had ever seen.”

(Quotes taken from Circa post-show surveys.)

The magic ingredients of traditional form with a contemporary twist, accessibility, high production values, and a highly talented cast and crew, have all contributed to the success and longevity of the Circa pantomime. Not only does it appeal to a range of age groups, but it also provides a steady income to the hard-working cast and crew for nearly three months of the year, and as Eric Gardiner observes, “it is always a fun affair for cast and audience, so long may they reign!”

Gavin Rutherford embracing his inner clown. Puss in Boots 2018/19. Image by Stephen A’Court


[1]  In 1841 David Osborne and three other actors staged a comedy called The Lawyer Outwitted at Auckland’s Watson’s Hotel. It was the first known European-style theatre production in New Zealand. (Atkinson)

[2] A show that has been adapted to suit audience members who may need a more relaxed environment.

[3] In New Zealand Sign Language, for hearing impaired audiences.

[4] Traditional Italian improvisation

Works Cited

Atkinson, Laurie. “‘Actors and Acting – Early Acting, 1840s to 1920’.” Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Ministry of Culture and Heritage, 2014, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/actors-and-acting/page-1.

Gardiner, Eric. Circa Pantomime E-mail-Interview. 26 Mar. 2021.

Hall, Roger. Circa Pantomime Interview.  6 Mar. 2021.

Hall, Roger. Cinderella. 2005.

Leary, Simon, and Gavin Rutherford. Cinderella. 2020.

McDonald, Ginette. “Ginette McDonald and The Thrill of the Theatre.” Circa Theatre, 4 Feb. 2013, https://www.circa.co.nz/ginette-mcdonald-and-the-thrill-of-theatre/.

New Zealand Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Early Acting, 1840s to 1920. https://teara.govt.nz/en/actors-and-acting/page-1. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.

O’Donnell, David. “Dame Kate Harcourt and the Art of the Senior Actor.” The Theatre Times, Oct. 2020, https://thetheatretimes.com/dame-kate-harcourt-and-the-art-of-the-senior-actor/.

Pantomime Production: “Robin Hood” – Nelson Photo News – No 145: November 11, 1972. https://photonews.org.nz/nelson/issue/NPN145_19721111/t1-body-d42.html. Accessed 20 Apr. 2021.

“Past Productions.” Wellington Repertory Theatre, Wellington Repertory Theatre, 2021, https://www.wellingtonrepertory.org.nz/archives/past-productions/.

Perry, Grayson. “Hands Off Our Panto Dames. Cross-Dressing Offers a Vital License for Subversion,”.” The Guardian.Com, The Guardian, 2 Dec. 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/02/panto-dames-cross-dressing-grayson-perry.

Rutherford, Gavin. Circa Pantomime Interview. 1 Mar. 2021.

Rutherford, Lyndee-Jane. Circa Pantomime Email Interview. 22 April 2021

Webby, George. Just Who Does He Think He Is? Steel Roberts, 2006.

William’s, Michael Nicholas. Circa Pantomime Email interview. 24 Mar. 2021.

Wilson, Susan. Circa Pantomime Interview. 1 Mar. 2021.

Kerryn Palmer is a theatre director and teacher, with a PhD in making theatre for and with Young People.