For a lover of theatre, Christmas means one thing in Britain: Panto Season. As a teacher of Drama, it is often the only common language my young students and I can speak because Pantomime is nearly every child’s introduction to live theatre (my youngest daughter attended her first at the age of three months). There must be some childhood magic in the Panto mix because even a board-hardened theatre veteran like myself felt like a born again audience virgin after my first Panto performance. I have laughed at the theatre before, I have cried, been stirred to anger, re-considered my place in the world and felt such terror I could not go near my basement for months (Woman in Black) but I have seldom had so much fun in the stalls as I have at a Christmas Panto.
But what is Panto—or Pantomime? First of all, let me clear up one obvious misconception. I am not talking about the white-faced, voice-free performance artists invisi-boxing their way through our urban landscapes. Panto is theatre; Panto is Christmas; Panto is chaos! Panto is just about the only thing which can entice my father to brave trans-Atlantic holiday travel and the UK’s December weather. Panto is also impossible to describe for someone who has never seen one.
The closest I came to adequately explaining Panto to a fellow Yankee: “It’s a bit like Rocky Horror Picture Show…for toddlers.” This might prepare someone for the raucous atmosphere, irreverent humour and insane song and dance numbers but it doesn’t really begin to address the beloved place Panto occupies in the hearts of the British.
Pantomimes are based in fairy tales: Aladdin, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and Snow White are the most common titles. Traditional Pantomime will feature an elderly female character called a “Dame” played by a male actor. If the Panto is truly traditional then its hero, known as the “Principal Boy”, will be played by a female—preferably a rather sexy one wearing tights and slapping her thighs frequently. (Sadly, the practise of Principal Boy is dying out—except in Harrogate!) It will also include a “Harlequin” character: a comically useless servant who provides slapstick comedy and plot complications. Naturally, there is also a villain who lives in a tight green spotlight throughout the performance.
Pantomimes thrive on audience participation. In this respect it is a bit like the Olde Timey Melodramas which are a summertime feature in some parts of the US (Nebraska, for some reason, loves a good Mellerdrammer). But Panto is far more involved than just cheering for the hero and booing the villain. There are specific catch phrases which must be used, which is where the similarity to Rocky Horror comes in. If a character on stage says “Oh yes it is,” you must shout back “Oh no it isn’t!” and vice versa. This banter can be initiated by the audience and may go on for several minutes. You also might be required to sing and/or dance.
Pantomimes are a feast of spectacle. Thousands of technical cues, hundreds of costumes (and that’s just for the Dame), dozens of sets, music, dance, colour, pyrotechnics, glitter balls, live animals, fake animals, black light sequences, audience chase scenes… Anything spectacular that can happen in the theatre happens in Pantomime.
Above all, a visit to the Panto is fun! Take your babies, take your grannies, your teen hoodlums, drunken colleagues, crazy neighbour—all are welcome at the Panto party. You can laugh loudly, sing badly, dance in the aisles, shout at the actors and wear spangled fairy wings. There is a good reason why the Holiday Season is Panto Season. Because that is what Pantomime truly is: a festive theatrical celebration!
In Yorkshire we are particularly blessed to host two Pantomimes nationally recognised for their artistic merit and faithfulness to the traditions of Panto: York Theatre Royal and Harrogate Theatre. While I accept the technical and artistic superiority of the York productions, my loyalty is to our own Harrogate Panto. In a Berwick Kaler v Tim Stedman slapstick showdown, I’d put a fiver on Steddy every time.
Of course, not everyone adores Panto Season as I do. There are the haters and the Scrooges out there who despise the low brow humour, the antique jokes purchased whole sale from a dodgy street vendor in a long coat and the OTTness of it all. Recently, Panto has attracted attention from international celebrities. This has both challenged and confirmed the hater’s views. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s beloved son Ian McKellen famously mentioned in an interview that he regretted never doing Pantomime. As Artistic Director of The Old Vic, Kevin Spacey heard Sir Ian’s plaintive cry and cast him as the Dame Widow Twankey in Aladdin. Several years ago, Henry Winkler of all people discovered the joys of Pantomime and has spent his holidays in the UK ever since. Patrick Duffy, David Hasslehoff and Pamela Anderson have similarly been tempted across the pond for Panto. I do wonder if Miss Anderson knew she was a mid-season replacement for drag queen Lily Savage when she took the job.
Whether it’s York or Harrogate or the London Palladium, no American visiting Britain at this festive time of year should be allowed back on the plane without producing their Pantomime ticket stub. But you musn’t go into the theatre blindly. You must enter it with an open heart, a childish exuberance and a magic wand.