In the period leading to Christmas and for a few days in January, pantomime becomes an integral part of British culture.
This eccentric form of musical comedy attracts audiences to productions across the British Isles in village halls and major theaters.
So what are the main elements that capture people’s imagination and make such entertainment unique?
A famous children’s tale, such as that of Cinderella, Dick Whittington, or Sleeping Beauty, is often the basis of a pantomime’s story.
The word to particularly note here is “based.” The plot and main characters of the children’s tale simply provide a framework within which the writers create a theatrical extravaganza.
Current events, love between various characters, the struggle of good versus evil, and lots of humor all make an appearance.
Jokes and Slapstick
The humor in a pantomime comes thick and fast.
Some of the jokes are old but proven to raise a laugh; others are more topical, and many are slapstick.
In a style reminiscent of circus clowns, characters fall down abruptly, run wildly across the stage while chasing each other, fight in an exaggerated manner, and make comic use of theatrical props.
Moreover, the jokes and slapstick often employ double entendres that appeal to the adults in the audience.
Music and Dance
Music and dance are vital to a pantomime.
Most productions have modern pop songs that people are familiar with.
Sometimes, the lead actors deliver solo numbers; at other times, singers and dancers fill the stage and perform together with gusto.
The songs generally have a connection with the story, although this can be tenuous.
What matters is the sense of enjoyment.
Every pantomime has a central character whose job is to push the story along and create a bond between the show and the audience.
In many productions, this task falls to the pantomime dame.
The dame is splendidly dressed in a flamboyant dress and wig.
Garish makeup covers her face.
She is middle-aged and may frequently complain about her widowhood and penury.
Most notably, a man always plays her.
The dame dominates the stage whenever she appears and addresses not just the other characters, but also the audience. Indeed, she may talk and joke with the audience while the other actors watch and enjoy her performance.
The Costumes and Set
The costume that the dame wears is not the only item of comic sartorial magnificence in a pantomime.
Color and spectacle are present in many of the costumes.
The same is true of the set. Whether a castle, village, or forest, a pantomime set is bold and eye-catching.
The designers use stairs, windows, walls, and doors to give perspective and to create focal points for the action.
Sets also include humor; for example, in the form of crooked houses and misspelled shop names.
During a pantomime, audience participation is fundamental.
The dame talks to the audience and responds to any banter; actors throw soft props into the auditorium; and communal singing takes place, with words printed on a large screen that the actors bring onto the stage.
Most famously, the actors encourage the audience to hiss and boo when an evil character appears.
They also expect the audience to tell them where such a character is lurking (usually “Behind you!”).
British pantomime at its best is funny and enjoyable for all age groups.
Little wonder, then, that well-known actors and directors sign up for a season of “panto.”
If you’re in Britain during the Christmas and New Year season, you may wish to grasp the opportunity to see a production.