“Oh No He Isn’t!”: The Magical World of the British Panto

‘To see a pantomime is to see the ridiculous simplicity of the world through the eyes of a child.’ Anon

‘I am grim all day, but I make you laugh at night.’ Joseph Grimaldi

Snow White – Holiday Panto – Throckmorton Theatre
Source: Fabrice Florin (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr

If you are lucky enough to be in the UK during the months of December and January, then you would be immersed in a theatrical world that comes across as slightly crazy. A fully grown man in a frock wears outrageous make-up and extraordinary wigs, another adult dresses as a dog woofing around the stage, and a woman with lovely long legs strides around the stage dressed as a man and frequently slaps her thigh. Yes, you will be in the world of the British Pantomime, known affectionately by the locals as ‘Panto’.

This winter season I was lucky enough to be back in the UK and worked at my local theatre on two different pantomimes, namely ‘Peter Pan‘ and ‘Beauty and the Beast‘. Between them they included:

  • The Pantomime Dame played by quite a tall man with a deep voice
  • The Dame having about 6 costumes and a range of wigs
  • The Dame having a ‘boyfriend’ in the audience. She came on and said ‘Romeo Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo’ then she identified some unsuspecting member of the audience to be her ‘date’ for the night. He had to call in response ‘I’m here my Bessy Wessy Bun Buns’
  • The Dame’s son being the friend of the audience with call and response, which went as follows: ‘Hello Kids’, ‘Hello Billy, Don’t be silly’, whenever he came on stage
  • A huge cast that was 80% girls from local dance schools who came on at certain times during the show to do dances that were loosely (or not!) related to the plot. The show opened with ‘Footloose’ and at one point we had ‘Food Glorious Food’. It was a bit like a Bollywood musical where you could feel a song coming on!
  • A custard pie fight with lots of shaving foam
  • A chase to the Benny Hill Show signature tune. Here it is if you don’t know it
  • Action song for the audience
  • Audience participation with a song that they join in with – words usually a well known tune (like a Christmas Carol) with the words changed
  • Twelve days of Christmas sung, with the help of the audience, but the 12 items are different from the original carol to be currently topical or age appropriate: for example, there were not 3 French Hens but 3 Fidget Spinners, and there were not 5 gold rings but 5 toilet rolls — you get the idea
  • The Beast transforms into the Prince veiled by dry ice — there is also transformation or magic in a Panto
  • Ends with a huge wedding and more singing and dancing.

Above is what one company did for their Panto, and they are quite formulaic but so that you get the full picture, below are a few more of the key conventions of Pantomime in terms of design, structure, story-lines and performance. These are taken from ‘A History of Pantomime’ by Maureen Hughes

Audience participation (p. 20)

  • ‘Hiss’ and ‘Boo’ when the baddie comes on stage.
  • ‘He’s behind you’ shouted when something evil is coming to get one of the good characters.
  • ‘Oh no he isn’t’ ‘Oh yes he is’. This banter between 2 or more of the characters and the audience joins in.
  • The Chase — this usually comes through the audience and audience members are dragged along.

Traditional Jokes (p. 30)

This one dates back to The Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851:

  • 1st Ugly Sister: I will now get my foot into the crystal slipper.
  • 2nd Ugly Sister: You couldn’t get your foot into the Crystal Palace.

Another well-known one for Cinderella is:

  • 1st character: My teeth are like stars.
  • 2nd character: Yes, they come out at night.

One popular one from Sleeping Beauty is:

  • 1st character: Why don’t you grow up, stupid?
  • 2nd character: I have grown up stupid!

The Funny Bits (p. 43)

  • The Dame: ‘She’ is obviously a ‘he’ with extreme and silly costumes, changing throughout the story. She is in nearly every scene and an ever constant presence. Her behaviour and costumes get more ludicrous as the show progresses, adding to the humour.
  • Simple Simon: This character usually plays the Dame’s son. He is also dressed in a silly costume, but not as outrageous as his mother. He is usually the audience’s friend and looks a little helpless. A few slaps around the head from his mother always brings a few laughs.
  • The Double Act: These always have ill-fitting and colourful costumes. They add slap stick by slipping on things, breaking things, bumping into each other etc. etc. They add a lot visually to the comedy.
  • The Immortals: These are always accompanied by smoke and dry ice. They are tongue in cheek so the adults enjoy their poor jokes.
  • The Baddies: These are comedic because of their ineptitude, usually having evil equipment (gun, crossbow, canon) which doesn’t work or backfires, literally, making these characters less frightening for the younger audience members.

If you enjoy this blog then you may consider putting on a Panto of your own next December, ‘Oh no I won’t’ I hear you cry, to which I respond ‘Oh yes you will!!’.

References

Beauty and the Beast‘ Pantomime by Three Spires and Guildhall, Coventry. Performed at the Albany Theatre, Coventry.

A History of Pantomime‘ by Maureen Hughes, 2013. Pen and Sword History Publications.

 

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