Monday, December 19, 2011


The distinctly English Pantomime is In Season: London is awash with them. Yes, Christmas is the time when grown men dress as women to amuse small children. If you are unfamiliar with pantomime - and it is a genre reserved mainly for England and its ex-colonies - you might find the whole thing a bit puzzling. There are a number of rituals associated with a true panto, and most are followed closely today. The result of it all is a spectacular show, aimed principally at six year olds but amusing for everyone. Actually, the  content of a panto is traditionally risque, the adult jokes supposedly going over the heads of the youngsters - in theory, anyway.

I had experienced panto in Australia, but thought I should check out the traditional English version. It so happens that, at the moment, a panto presentation of “Dick Whittington and His Cat” is playing at the New Theatre in Wimbledon, with the added extra of a famous Australian cast member: Dame Edna Everidge, a.k.a. Barry Humphries. The combination is, I think, a roaring success. Dame Edna is ostensibly a fairy who puts things in the story to rights, but in reality (obviously I use the term loosely) she spends most of her time giving us a commentary on what is going on, panto in general, and other more random matters. “The stage is full of non-entities in period costume”....”You might wonder what a giga-star is doing hanging over a stage in Wimbledon on a Saturday night...I wonder about that myself.”

Let the show begin....
Pantomime owes a lot to to the traditions of vaudeville and the music hall, and indeed its roots go back to the Mummers Plays of the middle ages, and the roving performances of the Commedia dell’arte players. When I looked it up on Wikipedia, I found a list of performance conventions found in pantomime, almost all of which featured in the panto I saw. Here is Wikipedia’s list and its realisation on the stage of the Wimbledon New Theatre:
  • An older woman (the pantomime dame - often the hero's mother) is usually played by a man in drag: absolutely. It wouldn’t be a panto without a dame. Ours was played by the writer and director, Eric Potts, a substantial man who vamped his way along as “Sarah the Cook” in increasingly outrageous costumes.
  • Risqué double entendre, often wringing innuendo out of perfectly innocent phrases. This        is, in theory, over the heads of the children in the audience. Yes, plenty of that (example: a large sausage appears and the dame comments to her son: “For some reason I just thought of your father”.)
  • Audience participation, including calls of "He's behind you!" (or "Look behind you!"), and "Oh, yes it is!" and "Oh, no it isn't!" The audience is always encouraged to boo the villain: Yes, our audience were right on to this convention. The first character to appear, the evil Rat King, was immediately and thoroughly boo-ed. The “Oh yes we do!”/”Oh no we don’t!” exchanges were all present. 
  • Music may be original but is more likely to combine well-known tunes with re-written lyrics: yes, plenty of those, sometimes even without the lyrics being changed (“In The Navy”). “Pop songs”, Dame Edna called them.
  • The animal, played by an actor in 'animal skin' or animal costume: yes, of course in Dick Whittington, we need a cat.

  • The good fairy enters from stage right (from the audience's point of view this is on the left) and the villain enters from stage left (right from the point of view of the audience). This convention goes back to the medieval mystery plays, where the right side of the stage symbolised Heaven and the left side symbolised Hell. Fascinating - this convention was indeed adhered to at Wimbledon, though I hadn’t heard of it until Wikipedia enlightened me.
  • Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of 'water' at the audience that is actually full of streamers. Ah, yes. In our case, three of the characters (not villains) came out with three loaded water guns. The minute they appeared, most of the audience seemed to know what to expect. Indeed, one group in a stage-side box immediately put up an umbrella.
  • A slapstick comedy routine may be performed, often a decorating or baking scene, with humour based on throwing messy substances. We had a couple of scenes which could fit this convention. There was indeed a baking scene (see above comment re the sausage). We also had a rather ridiculous (but that’s slapstick for you) routine with three characters, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, a variety of silly props, and a borderline offensive routine involving a dwarf and a ring of five toilet rolls. I’ll say no more.
Our show was terribly up to date, with a film sequence in 3D, for which we all donned cardboard glasses. It had been worked into the show in a rather sketchy way (a random turtle had to be introduced), but no matter - the kids loved it. What with fancy film effects AND Dame Edna, this was a panto which gave value for money. 
Which reminds me of Edna’s gentle jibes at the people sitting in the upper balcony: “the paupers”, as she referred to them. “Don’t worry possums, as the show progresses I will look up at you now and then. In direct proportion to the amount you paid.”

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