The end of November is nigh and that means the Panto season is upon us. Theatres across the land will be filled with children and their parents settling into their stalls to see such treats as Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Puss and Boots and Aladdin, to name but a few of the nation’s favourite fairytales.
Panto is short for pantomime, a the word comes from the ancient Greek meaning “all imitator”. The modern version of this art form dates back to the 16th century in the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition, and then in 17th century in British masques. Today, panto seems to be a uniquely British affair. It is a form of musical comedy theatre solely reserved for the festive winter season, and is an opportunity for families to go to the theatre together to watch a singing, dancing version of a classic fairytale. These shows usually conform to an established structure and cast list; the young leading man, the old woman (usually played by a man in drag), the beautiful love interest, a couple of buffoonish sidekicks or henchman and the pantonime cow (or some other animal), which is a costume worn by two actors, one at the head and one in the rear.
Pantos often boast a guest celebrity, not usually known for performing on stage. Sometimes, great names from yesteryear grace the British stage with a panto appearance. In years gone by, I have been lucky enough to see Henry Winkler (a.k.a ‘The Fonz’ from Happy Days) play Captain Hook, and Des O’Connor play Buttons in Cinderella. They were both excellent and O’Connor was a master of comedy, holding the audience in the palm of his hand and reposting with quick wit when children shouted out or parents made jibes.
The shows are filled with slapstick, cross-dressing and innuendo. The humour is marvelously split between jokes for the children in the audience, and much more adult topical references and innuendo that only the parents will understand. In fact, looking at objectively, it is quite a bizarre experience.
One of the most unusual and enjoyable aspects of panto is the audience participation, which is strongly encouraged throughout almost the entire performance. If the audience is not singing or clapping, they are booing or cheering, or shouting “he’s behind you” to the oblivious leading man as the baddie creeps up from backstage. And the actors constantly ‘break the fourth wall’ – there are the three walls of the stage and then the fourth wall between actors and the audience – to address the audience directly and ask them questions. This means that you are not just watching a show, you are actively joining in and even affecting what happens on stage.
If you have never been to a pantomime, I urge you to go. They are a couple of hours of organised and hilarious mayhem, thoroughly entertaining and good fun!