By Jim Rastall, Artistic Director and Apples & Pears Ambassador
‘Tis the season to watch Panto!
As we say goodbye to Christmas and wish a fond-ish farewell to 2016 (Where did it go? It’s behind you!) we sadly have to accept that something else is coming to an end too: Panto season.
But before the Panto curtain falls for another year Apples & Pears has one more trip lined up…. Can you guess where? I bet you can’t (“Oh yes we can!” I hear you shout)! That’s right, boys and girls, at the end of January, Marion Richardson Primary School are going to the theatre to watch a Panto!
Lots of the families on our trips haven’t been to the Panto before and it can seem like a strange form of entertainment if you don’t know what to expect. So in preparation, here’s a quick introduction to this most loved – and most bizarre – of British traditions.
A Pantomime is pretty much unlike anything else you’ll see at the theatre or on TV, and if you’ve never seen one before it can be quite a confusing experience… Why, for example, is that girl playing Jack and why is that boy playing Mother Goose and why is that guy from The Only Way Is Essex playing any part at all and is there really going to be special guest appearance from former Aston Villa footballer and current Homes Under the Hammer presenter Dion Dublin?
How does the entire audience know when to boo, to cheer, to sigh, to sing along etc? And does the theatre email you a copy of the script in advance when you book online or something, because the audience has lines – AND HAS LEARNED THEM!
Let me attempt to explain…
There will probably be a lot of this! It’s common for the lead boy to be played by a girl and for the lead boy’s mother to be played by a man. This character is known as the “Panto Dame” and is usually a real show-stealer. There are some actors in England who make their whole career out of playing Pantomime Dames, and the best are very VERY funny! Their jokes are usually all about innuendo and a lot of laughs are also drawn from the Panto Dame attempting (and failing) to flirt with male audience members.
The Celebrity Panto is almost a genre of its own now. There are some Pantos that sell thousands of tickets simply because of who is in them and sometimes you will get people from TV doing the odd cameo on certain nights. When there is a celebrity in the show lots of their gags (jokes) are likely to be at their own expense. Amanda Holden was in a Panto this Christmas and I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a joke about her appearance on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You are…? So if you know there is a celebrity in the Panto you’re going to see, keep an eye out for them in the news and on TV – it may earn you a few extra laughs!
Forget what you think you know about being a good audience member; when it comes to Panto it’s all about getting involved. The story relies on you being an active participant and you’ll quickly become familiar with classic call and response routines like “It’s behind you!” and “Oh no it isn’t! Oh yes it is!” Plus you should be prepared to have the odd chat with the Dame, especially if you’re a Dad…
But where do all these eccentric traditions come from?
Believe it or not, although we now think of it as a very English thing, Pantomime actually started in Ancient Rome (although it involved much less glitter and far fewer Justin Bieber songs that it does today). In fact back in about 100BC a Pantomime (or Pantomimus to use the Roman word) would be performed by just one dancer. This dancer would play all the roles and tell the whole story (usually a Roman myth or legend) purely through movement. Because Pantomimus used physical storytelling there was no language barrier and it quickly became a popular form of theatre throughout the Roman Empire. As different cultures adopted the form it naturally evolved over time and “Abra Kadabra!” here we are a mere 2000 years later witnessing Paul O’Grady play an Evil Stepmother in an all singing, all dancing, big cast (and big budget) production of Cinderella at The London Palladium. Pantomimus, is that you?! You’re barely recognisable!
Pantomime has certainly changed a lot since Roman times (imagine Julius Caesar singing along to We Wish You A Merry Christmas with his fellow audience members, or going up on stage to help Widow Twanky with the laundry!) and the fact that it continues to change is surely an important reason for its ongoing and seemingly inexhaustible popularity. When it comes to winter trips to the theatre with the family, Panto is the undisputed champion!
“Oh no it isn’t.”
“Oh yes it is.”
“Oh no it isn’t!”
“Oh yes it is!”
“OH NO IT ISN’T!!
“OH YES IT IS!!!”
Image source: http://www.michaelotton.co.uk/gal-cat/michael-otton-pantomime-comic/