A fine Christmas tradition

For many Glaswegians a festive outing to the Citizens is a cherished family tradition.  Here, we take a look back at the history of Christmas at the Citz!

Poster for the 2002 Christmas
production of Scrooge

His Majesty's Theatre and Royal Opera House (now called the Citizens Theatre) opened its doors to the public on Sat 28 Dec 1878 with a pantomime - Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. The Glasgow Herald reviewer who came to see the opening night commented that the theatre owner, Mr McFadyen was "at a great disadvantage" trying to finish building a theatre AND rehearse a technically difficult pantomime, but that "this being the season of pantomime" he really had "no choice in the matter", showing just how important it was, and still is, for theatres to have a strong pantomime or Christmas show.

Even though the reviewer noted that the cast and technical elements of the show were definitely under-rehearsed, he closes with a remark that "...when these have been remedied... we shall be surprised if 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' does not take a good place amongst the entertainments in the choice of pleasure-seekers during the festive season."

Whether it is going to see a traditional pantomime, such as the one that opened this theatre in 1878, or a more theatrical Christmas show such as the Citizens presents now, for many people, going to the theatre is an important activity closely tied to the holiday period.

His Majesty's Theatre was soon renamed The Royal Princess' theatre and over a period of 65 years they developed a strong tradition of pantomime in Glasgow, even setting some British records.

In 1945 the Citizens Theatre Company took up residence in The Royal Princess’ Theatre and changed the name. For the first few years they continued the Princess' fine pantomime tradition. One particular pantomime, The Tintock Cup (1949), was so popular that its run was extended to 4 months, finally closing  on 1 April 1950.

Stanley Baxter in Pantomime (title and location unknown)
The Tintock Cup* was written by Citizens Theatre and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland founder James Bridie, and featured Stanley Baxter. Baxter (perhaps more well known for his many appearances in the Alhambra and Kings Theatre pantomimes) also appeared in Red Riding Hood* in 1950 and many other early Citizens Theatre plays.

The pantomime tradition continued in the 1950s and early 60s, and the Citizens had a good line in uniquely Scottish plays, with many of the titles being in Scottish:

Tapsalteerie-O* (1953) meaning “Topsy-turvy”,
Whigmaleeries* (1955) meaning “Whim”,
Clishmaclaver* (1958) meaning “Gossip”,
Babity Bowster* (1959) meaning “Games and Merrymaking”,
Gaggiegalorum* (1960) meaning “Fun galore”,
Bletherskeits* (1961) meaning “A babbling, foolish person”

These performances were billed as “an entertainment with music”, featuring many popular songs of the time.

From 1969, Giles Havergal, Philip Prowse and Robert David MacDonald took over the artistic reins of the Citizens Theatre, heralding a new era of compelling, edgy drama. They programmed European classics and risqué re-inventions of Shakespearean texts that both shocked and enthralled audiences. However the Citizens Theatre pantomime was still largely traditional every year, with more common titles such as Aladdin, Puss in Boots and Cinderella being performed regularly with lavish scenery and costumes to draw in the audiences.

Jack and the Beanstalk, Citizens Theatre, 1974
Photographer unknown

In the early 1980s the Citizens decided a new direction was needed, so started to produce a Christmas show instead of pantomime. These shows were still aimed at entertaining families, with many of them being based on children's stories, such as The Snow Queen, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, The Jungle Book and Pinocchio. These alternative productions fitted better with the Citizens Theatre style that had developed and the plays were often bold retellings of classic stories, usually with a contemporary twist.

Pinocchio, Citizens Theatre, Dec 1988
Photograph: John Barr
In 2002, Kenny Miller directed a version of Dickens' A Christmas Carol, adapted by Neil Bartlett. This brand new adaptation was jointly premiered here at the Citizens (called Scrooge) and at Lyric Hammersmith (called A Christmas Carol). Current Artistic Director Dominic Hill used this adaptation in his acclaimed 5-star production.

Giles Havergal as Scrooge, Citizens Theatre 2002
Photograph: Richard Campbell
In the 2002 version Giles Havergal played Scrooge in a very contemporary version that Neil Bartlett describes as "an aggressive post-modern collage of neon, giant blown-up photographs and a full-on Gothic funeral cortege".

In recent years subsequent artistic directors have kept with the "alternative Christmas show" theme, but have tried to keep an element of family-friendliness, perhaps recognising that the audiences that come to and love Citizens Theatre productions throughout the year want to introduce their children to us as soon as possible.

This was the case in 2010 when the Citizens started to include a 'wee-ones' Christmas show for 3-6 year olds running in the studio alongside the main stage show. Now, Citizens Theatre fans can bring their children or grandchildren to see a show here as young as possible.

The Citizens Theatre has been catering to those looking for an alternative to the usual festive tradition for many years. We like to think that the Citizens Theatre has continued to do as the Glasgow Herald reviewer from 1878 remarked, and to "take a good place amongst the entertainments... during the festive season". We hope to do so for many years to come.

This year, we hope you'll come and celebrate the festive season with us once again - and enjoy a heart-warming production of a Dickensian Christmas classic! A Christmas Carol runs from 3-24 December at Tramway. 

Did you know...?

  • Many of the pantomimes and Christmas shows performed during the 70s and 80s were written or adapted specifically for the Citizens by Myles Rudge, a song-writer famous for the lyrics to hit 1960s songs such as Right Said Fred and A Windmill in Old Amsterdam.
  • *One of the traditions of a Royal Princess' pantomime was that it had to have exactly 13 letters in the title. Look back over the titles mentioned from 1945-1969 and count them!