Like many schoolchildren at this time of year, one of my Childerbeasts has just been to the Panto (“Oh no they haven’t”). One of her classmates who has joined them this year is from the US. This child has never heard of Pantomime. Of course they haven’t – why would they have done? This child had absolutely no idea what it was, so naturally they asked their British friends to explain. The rest of the class had a rather difficult time explaining it. It wasn’t until I had this conversation with my child that it occurred to me how utterly baffling it must be to discover this peculiarly British phenomenon, and even more difficult to explain it to someone who has not come across it before. Difficult, mainly because we don’t really know why we do it either. Therefore, after the runaway success of my Christmas present guide last week, without further ado, I now present to you my helpful guide to Pantomime.
According to Wikipedia the word “pantomimus” in Latin derives from the Greek word (for which I do not know how to change to a Greek keyboard) meaning a dancer who performs all of the roles or all of the story. It continues that “Pantomime is a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment….a participatory form of theatre in which the audience is encouraged to [join in].”
Western Culture has a long history of pantomime and it dates back to classical theatre in Ancient Greece. Pantomimes in other cultures mean miming and only in Britain does it relate to our particular type of theatrical show. So, anyone who is new to this cries “what is this particular type of theatrical show”?
The story will be loosely based on a fairy tale
Every Panto I have ever been to is loosely based on a fairy tale. There is usually a male romantic lead, a female romantic lead, usually in pursuit of eachother, or looking for love and bumping into eachother. There is also a maternal character trying to care for one or both of them and a baddie, trying to thwart their love with their evil plotting.
The men dress up as women and the women dress up as men….sometimes
Perhaps this is becoming less of a thing now but all of the characters are mixed up in the sense that their clothing is not conventional according to gender. The particular character that springs to mind is “Widow Twanky” who is always played by a man. At the risk of broaching a controversial issue, this is not a trans issue. Or on second thoughts, maybe it is because it is the character in the story that is the important thing, the costume is merely to assist with the story-telling and no one, and I mean no one, bats an eyelid.
The show will be littered with the type of jokes that you get from a cracker. I need to pause here to explain crackers further.
Crackers in Britain can mean two things. The first is a dried savoury biscuit upon which you, generally speaking, put and eat together with cheese. They can be enjoyed all year as a light snack. However, at Christmas they accompany a large cheeseboard, cold meats, chutney and other nibbly bits. One usually consumes too many and then complains loudly about having eaten too much, when you only have yourself to blame. We also refer to these as biscuits. But they’re not sweet biscuits, which we also call biscuits and Americans call cookies. See? It makes perfect sense.
The second are paper cylinders wrapped festively which contain a small gift, a paper hat and a piece of paper upon which is printed an appallingly unfunny joke. These crackers are laid with the rest of the table for festive meals. When everyone is seated you invite one of your fellow diners to “pull a cracker” with you. They accept and you each hold one end and pull. After a modest amount of good-humoured grappling and some care for the glassware, there is a small bang as the cracker separates, with one person winning the half with all of the goodies, and the other entirely bereft. But don’t worry, Bereft Diner, there is a cracker for everyone and everyone ends up with a paper hat (which you are expected to wear for the duration of the meal), a baffling and useless gift (a hair clip for someone with no hair – that sort of thing) and a rubbish joke, which you are obliged to share with the table.
For those unfamiliar with the type of jokes in crackers, they are the sort of jokes your dad tells. You will notice this if your father or grandfather is at the show with you because you will see them taking mental notes of the jokes in order to deploy them at a later date. If they get a notebook out, leave immediately.
Generally speaking the British are uncomfortable about absolutely everything, including breathing. And we’re comfortable that way. But oddly not at a Pantomime. Audience participation is expected and encouraged at Panto, and lots of people join in enthusiastically. Just once a year.
Booing at the baddy
Goodies enter and stand stage right and baddies enter and stand stage left. The villain will usually be preceded by a loud bang and a puff of smoke. As soon as they appear, the audience is expected to boo loudly. Loudly, but politely. Not so loudly or for so long that the villain can’t be heard telling everyone about their nefarious plans. They exit stage left with a booming cackle and a big sweep of a large cape.
Shouting stock phrases
You (the audience) may be asked by one of the characters to shout out a phrase at a particular time, usually to alert another character to something that they otherwise would not have noticed. You will probably be encouraged and coached by that character to practise this all together so you all know what you’re doing at the crucial moment. However, in addition, there are some phrases that will also come up that you will be expected to just shout out as a group when required. Learn them now and I shall endeavour to put them into context next:
- “Oh no it isn’t/oh yes it is.”
The audience answers back to this phrase. Almost conversationally, one character shouts out “Oh no it isn’t” at which point you (the audience) will be expected to shout back “oh yes it is.” No, I have absolutely no idea why we do that.
The audience is expected to shout this phrase out. It may involve the baddy trying to sneak up on one of the goodies, the goody “hasn’t noticed” and they step around the stage in circles. I have a very early memory of Sister A (as a small child, not last week) being so enraged that the character hadn’t noticed that they were being sneaked up on that she got herself out of her seat and stomped her little legs down to the edge of the stage in order to berate them publicly. In addition she made some unflattering remarks about their eyesight and even less complimentary ones as to their IQ. It is the only time I have been to the theatre and seen the entire company helpless with laughter.
Oh dear god, yes there is also singing. As in audience-participatory singing. You may be split into groups – don’t panic at this point, it’s not going to be a rendition of ‘O Fortuna’. Again, you’ll get to practise. The words will probably be unravelled on a large piece of paper so everyone can see and someone may have a pointy stick to guide you along. But if you can’t see or can’t remember, there is no need to worry, it won’t be tricky and no one takes it seriously. So if like my beloved late grandfather, your best singing is a low growl that summons the rocks, or like my beloved late mother, you can sing only one note and it’s not one known to music, no one cares.
You’ll probably get squirted with water at some point. No, I don’t know why. Now that I’ve thought about it I don’t understand any of it. Yes, we are weird. Very weird.
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