Thursday, 18 November 2010

A Lesson in Pantomime

Me in pantomime, looking fabulous.
Pantomime.  The great British tradition.  For many it conjures up images of overexcited children of all ages, cheering and booing and eating too many sweets.  But for a select few, the word "pantomime" brings forth memories of freezing cold dressing rooms, frantic costume changes and scrubbing custard pie goo out of your hair.  Every year at least one person asks, "Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?" and every year we come back for more.

As a member of an amateur dramatics group, I am currently in rehearsal for a pantomime, and it occurred to me that there are a lot of people who don't even know what a panto is (I'm thinking of you in particular, my American friends), so I shall try to explain exactly what I and many of my friends subject ourselves to every winter.

A pantomime is a play-slash-musical-slash-comedy, with a little bit of a love story and a dash of slapstick thrown it, and they're performed throughout the Christmas season.  They're usually based on children's stories (think "Cinderella", "Snow White", "Aladdin", but before they were given the Disney treatment), and they're incredibly cheesy and a hell of a lot of fun.  Girls dress up as boys, men dress up as women, one person usually gets chronic backache from being the back end of some kind of beast... but I'm getting ahead of myself.  Whatever the story, wherever the production, a pantomime will (almost) always have these characters in them:

"Principal Boy"
"Now, where did I put my trousers...?"
The hero of the piece, the one everybody (should) cheer for.  He's brave and bold, dashing in at the first sign of danger to defeat the villain and save the girl with his magnificent sword/magic lamp/big twig.  Oh, and I should point out at this point that tradition dictates that the Principal Boy is played by a girl.  A girl with impossibly long legs, wearing little more than hot pants and fishnets.  This could be one of the reasons why we never fail to get men in the audience.

"Principal Girl"
She is basically the fairy tale version of Doctor Who's assistant.  Her job is to go out and get captured, or at least get herself in a situation where she has to be rescued by the man she's in love with and has known for little more than five minutes. She's as wet as water, and incredibly stupid.  You can guarantee if there's a mysterious noise, she will run towards it.

"The Baddy"
"Boo!  Hiss! Etc!"
Could be a witch or evil king or anyone who is just downright nasty.  It's up to them to get the kids booing and hissing, and is by far the best part to play in a pantomime as it's the most fun.  They tend to be a bit lacking in the brain cell department as they have a habit of telling the audience their top secret plans, who in turn tell the good guys, but there's something deliciously evil about being able to be mean to children and get away with it.  It's even better when you can scare them to the point of tears.  Very cruel but very satisfying.

"Don'tcha wish your girlfriend was hot like me..."
"The Dame"A bloke in a frock.  Not a drag queen, as drag queens tend to make the effort to look attractive and act feminine, and a pantomime dame is anything but.  He/She tends to be at the butt of everyones jokes because they look, well, like a man in a dress.

"The Comedy Double Act"
A duo of idiots who tell jokes so bad that if you were to tell them outside of a pantomime, you'd probably be ostracised.

"The Pantomime Cow/Horse/Four Legged Animal"
Comprising of two people.  One person is the front end, the other bends over and holds on to the waist of the person in front and makes up the back end.  The up side is that you get a nice, warm costume.  The down side is the pain.

"The Prompt"
The guardian angel of any production.  They sit in the wings with a copy of the script and feed lines to anyone who has forgotten them.  On a good day, they have nothing to do.  On a bad day, they're frantically flipping through to pages of the script, trying to work out what the hell is going on.

Although people of all ages go to watch pantomimes, they are predominantly aimed at children, and when you have a large group of under tens watching a production, anything can happen and usually does.  For many of these kids, this is their first experience of seeing a performance that isn't on a screen, and keeping the attention of these little brats darlings for an couple of hours isn't easy.  But once they adjust to their new found experience, they'll scream themselves hoarse, cower behind their parents in fear and sing at the top of their voices (and occasionally throw up too). When a little boy declares for all to hear that he wants to punch the evil lord, or a tiny girl gets upset because Cinderella can't go to the ball, you know you've won them over.

If the front of the stage is chaotic, backstage is pandemonium.  People are complaining that they're cold or tired or that their throat hurts.  Props get lost, cues get missed, someone will start to cry, someone else will be ill, and you can pretty much guarantee that someone will proclaim to everyone that can hear them that "That's it!  No more!  I'm never doing this again!"  And everyone nods sympathetically and gives them the attention they need, knowing full well that they'll be back the following year.  And why?  Because we love it!  We love the unpredictability and the adrenaline rush that goes with it.  We love watching the kids go crazy as they boo the bad guy and cheer the hero.  We love dressing up in weird and wonderful costumes that would probably get you arrested if you were to wear them in the streets.  But most of all we love performing.  The songs might be cheesy, the dances exhausting and some of the lines dubious to say the least, but nothing can compare to the feeling you get when you realize you have an entire audience eating out of the palm of your hand.  Yes, we hate the cold dressing rooms, the coughs and splutters that are always spread amongst ourselves, and the tears and tantrums that are bound to occur when you have so many show offs performers sharing a small space .  But when a little girl tugs at your hem and whispers that you were her favourite, or when little old lady comes over to you in the supermarket and tells you what a great time she had, some how all the backstage shenanigans seem worth it and you find yourself looking forward to the following winter.

Spot the difference.

5 people love me ♥ Add a comment...:

A said... [Reply to comment]

This is a test comment as I've been told the Post a Comment on my blog isn't working...

PAMO said... [Reply to comment]

YEAH! I can comment!
That's a lot of exclamation points.

Maundering mutterer said... [Reply to comment]

Yay! Me too! I saw it first! I saw it first!
We love Panto in South Africa too. Fond memories!

A said... [Reply to comment]

I had no idea pantomime stretched as far as South Africa. I suppose it's only fair that other nations children should be traumatized by ugly men in dresses too.

fdp100 said... [Reply to comment]

Worth a response. Great piece. Go to for more.

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