An English Pantomime

It is not what you think!  A Pantomime here is not done in whiteface, silently finding non-existent walls, a la Marcel Marceau.  No, it is far from silent!  In fact it was so loud and raucous that I had to put my fingers in my ears at a couple of points. And it is quintessentially British. Read on if you want to learn what it is all about.

My friend Denise took a seminar on the “British Panto”, and at the end they all went to a popular version at the Shaw Theatre, near the British Library, and I tagged along using an extra ticket.  So here is the background..

A traditional Panto is performed around Christmas time and is based on a familiar story, often a fairy tale.  We went to see Jack and the Beanstalk, but they perform others like Aladdin, Snow White, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, etc .

The sets were very professionally done

They actually had it "grow" while it was being blown up... a giant inflatable beanstalk!

Looks like it is going to be a straight-forward play, right? Nope, this is where it gets interesting. There are several “almost always-es” that those who are unfamiliar would not expect.

There is always a cross-dresser, sometimes a very famous Dame… (like Dame Edna is in a Panto called “Dick Whittington”) who plays the mother, or some other comic middle-aged woman. She is a crazy exaggeration and changes bizarre outfits, with huge head-dresses, constantly. Ours was playing Jack’s mother and he/she had really nice legs! So much so I doubted he was a he for a moment.  The headpieces he was wearing were sometime as tall as he was, and twice as wide. There was a monstrous laugh every time he walked out!
There is also usually a girl playing the principal boy character, and a girl playing the principal girl character, making their mandatory romance element a little weird, but that is part of the tradition.  Also, there is usually an animal, played by 2 humans in a costume, like the family’s cow in Jack in the Beanstalk.
So the loud part comes from the fact that there is always audience interaction. You must always yell certain things at the characters, like “She’s behind you!” or “Hiya Billy!  “Oh no, it isn’t” or “Oh yes, it is!”  Expect things to be thrown at you, the actors to run through the audience, and to get wet sometime during the performance.
In ours Jack (of Giant killing fame) had a brother named Billy who throws “sweeties” (marshmallows, but pink) into the audience, which often land on the floor before being popped into a kid’s mouth…ew! The more I think about it… DOUBLE EW!  When the bad guy came near his jar of sweeties every kid in the place screamed until Billy “noticed”.  It got so loud I had to cover my ears… seriously, my ear were crackling.
The Panto (which is what they actually call it for short) is considered family entertainment, because it is packed with political jokes and innuendo…  strictly for the adults… going right over the kids’ heads (one hopes).   Any Panto that is overtly vulgar has warnings all over it, because families expect to all be entertained, but each on his own level.  There was much sexual innuendo with the Dame’s character, and I frankly am amazed at how funny they think the Dame is.  They just howl with laughter just looking at her (him?  I don’t know which to say).

We were able to meet the cast afterward, and the Dame was asked about the weight of the head-dresses.  He said they weigh a ton, that he makes them all himself, and any Dame worth his stuff always owns all his own costumes.

Well!  Who knew?

The other part about meeting the cast was that the boy lead (who actually WAS a boy, going against the tradition) had been in a British Soap Opera here called, “East Enders”.  So people got his autograph and he is famous to a certain crowd, anyway.

A British Pantomime is a true experience.  I think I have “ticked that box”, and don’t need to go again, but I would not have believed it if I did not see it.  It sure gives insight into British “humour”, which is NOT the same as “humor”.

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