Princesses Pantomimes, Windsor Castle review: charming, but a little threadbare

·3 min read
The gold brocade and turquoise hat worn by Princess Elizabeth to play 'Aladdin' in 1943 - Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021
The gold brocade and turquoise hat worn by Princess Elizabeth to play 'Aladdin' in 1943 - Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2021

On 13 September 1940, Buckingham Palace was struck by Luftwaffe bombs. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth were in residence but unharmed. The princesses Elizabeth and Margaret weren’t around, having been evacuated to Windsor Castle for their safety at the start of the War.

Among the activities that kept them busy was growing their own vegetables in specially assigned allotments. Now, a modest exhibition held in the Castle’s Waterloo Chamber will focus on another of the siblings’ pastimes: performing a Christmas pantomime.

Each year between 1941 and 1944, Elizabeth and Margaret took part in a panto in that same Chamber – in part to bring festive cheer to the local community, and in part to raise money for the Royal Household Wool Fund, which supplied yarn to make cap comforters for British soldiers.

At the time of their debut production – Cinderella – Princess Elizabeth was 15 and her sister 11. This was followed by Sleeping Beauty, Aladdin and Old Mother Red Riding Boots. The seven surviving costumes worn by the princesses in the final two productions are now on view together for the first time. (No outfits from the first two productions survive.)

As befitting a future monarch, Princess Elizabeth took the lead role in Aladdin – and her principal outfit was a gold brocade jacket over turquoise dungarees. Playing Princess Roxana in the same production, Princess Margaret wore a red silk dress and matching jacket.

The pantomimes were written, produced and directed by Hubert Tanner, headmaster of the Royal School in Windsor, with children from the Castle community taking supporting roles. There were two performances each of Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and such was their popularity that this increased to three performances for Aladdin and Old Mother Red Riding Boots. The nightly audience numbered roughly 400 to 500 people.

Princess Elizabeth in a production of 'Old Mother Red Riding Boots', December 1944 - Hulton Royals Collection
Princess Elizabeth in a production of 'Old Mother Red Riding Boots', December 1944 - Hulton Royals Collection

Strangely unmentioned in the exhibition is the fact that on the front row for the third night of Aladdin in 1943 was a young naval lieutenant called Prince Philip of Greece. “I have never known Lilibet more animated”, Princess Elizabeth’s then governess, Marion Crawford, observed. “There was a sparkle about her none of us [has] ever seen before”.

Among the costumes for Old Mother Red Riding Boots was a chintz shirt, trousers and sunhat, worn for a seaside scene by Princess Elizabeth (in the lead role of Lady Christina Sherwood). As interesting as any outfit on show, however, are the 16 pictures on the walls.

The Waterloo Chamber is famous for its portraits by Thomas Lawrence of key figures who had helped defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. During the Second World War, the canvases were removed for safekeeping, leaving numerous empty frames – which were duly filled by watercolours serving as decorations for the pantos. Claude Whatham, a student at Wycombe Technical Institute and School of Art, was asked to depict a colourful set of fairytale characters – and impressive they are too. They recall the Constructivist designs for avant-garde Russian theatre in the 1920s, and one can easily imagine their complementing, but never overshadowing, the action on stage.

After the War, the Lawrences were restored and the Whathams obscured. However, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the first Windsor pantomime, the former have been removed from their frames again and the latter left visible anew.

There isn’t much of this exhibition, but what there is is charming and engaging, all the more so for being staged in the same space as the original shows were eight decades ago. According to his biographer, Basil Boothroyd, Princess Elizabeth was such a funny Aladdin she had Prince Philip “rolling in the aisles”.

To Jan 31 2022. Entry as part of general admission ticket; rct.uk