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What is Pantomime or Panto?

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British Panto

Prince Charming and The Wicked Fairy in a 2004 production of "Sleeping Beauty" in Canterbury. Jack Ryder, then in the British soap Eastenders, and 80s pop diva and actress Toyah Wilcox are featured

Robert Workman/Getty Images

Question: What is Pantomime or Panto?

I keep seeing Pantomimes advertised and my friends who have visited the UK have told me not to miss seeing a "Panto" this winter. What is that? Is it like the pantomime that silent clowns, or Marcel Marceau did?

Answer: Actually, it's nothing like that at all. British Pantomime, or Panto, has no resemblence to those silent comedians. In fact, Panto is probably the noisiest, rowdiest sort of theatre you can attend (with the whole family) in Britain.

Pantomime in Britain (usually called Panto) is a peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theater. It has nothing to do with mime - silent performers in white-face make up walking into glass or doing Marcel Marceau-type physical comedy.

British pantomime takes familiar fairy tales and children's stories - Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and His Cat, Snow White - and injects a bit of music hall (British Vaudeville) sensibility, contemporary references and audience participation to create a raucous, noisy entertainment that's fun for everyone in the family.

A Very Old Tradition

British pantomime has very deep roots, drawing on the 15th and 16th century traditions of Commedia del Arte for an assortment of stock characters and other conventions.These always include:
  • The principal boy The male juvenile lead - for example Aladdin or Cinderella's Prince Charming. He's always played by a young woman (lately, usually a television celebrity) in a tight costume.
  • The Panto Dame Almost always played by a man in drag, the panto dame is a comic, and camp, female character. She's usually an older woman but in Cinderella, not only the step mother but also the Ugly Sisters are panto dames. In Aladdin (at more than 200 years old, one of Britain's oldest panto stories) it's Aladdin's mother, a poor laundress known as The Widow Twankey. Popular comedians and occasional famous leading actors with a sense of fun often do a winter turn as a panto dame.
  • A side kick or "chorus" figure There is always a secondary character on stage who speaks to the audience, encouraging them to shout and clap or comically commenting on the action. In Cinderella that character is Buttons, her father's (Baron Hardup) servant and her friend. In Aladdin it is Wishee Washee, the hero's brother.
  • A comedy animal Most pantos feature a comic animal played by two actors in one costume. In Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack's cow is a Panto cow. If the plot of a story doesn't have a place for an animal, you can be sure that the panto writers will shoehorn one in.
  • Lots of audience participation When you go to a panto in Britain, you can't help but be drawn in to the traditional shouting and carrying on. Villains are hissed, misfortunes are bemoaned and several key lines - "Oh yes it is!" - "Oh no it isn't!" and "He's behind you!" are shouted out by one and all at the appropriate moments.
  • Contemporary references and bawdy jokes Pantos are family shows but there is usually enough innuendo of the nudge-nudge wink-wink variety to keep the grownups happy.
  • A transformation scene Most pantos have a moment when the set designers bring out their most magical special effects - twinkly lights, disappearing characters, clouds of smoke. Every story has its traditional transformation scene - Cinderella's emergence in her ball gown with her coach and footmen, Aladdin's discovery of the genii in the cave of jewels.

Celebrity Guest Stars

It's easy to imagine that having celebrities play key characters in Panto is relatively new - tied to our contemporary, celebrity mad culture. But, in fact, the use of celebrity guest stars goes back more than 100 years. Before film, television and popular sports provided a ready supply, producers used to employ well known variety artistes and music hall stars. Nowadays, audiences are likely to find their favorite soap stars, well known comedians and pop stars and winners of reality talent shows performing in panto.

 

Where and When to Find a Panto

Starting a few weeks before Christmas and continuing throughout January and February, all of Britain's cities will have pantos, featuring well known national and international celebrities.

The big celebrity pantos usually tour to smaller regional theatres throughout the season and, wherever you go during the three or four weeks after Christmas, you are likely to find a local professional or amateur company staging a panto. The best way to find one is to read local listing magazines or look at notice boards on town halls and in shop windows. In the smallest towns and villages, simply ask a local if there is a panto going on nearby. The smaller the destination, the more likely everyone will know about the panto.

Find a List of This Season's Pantos Around the UK

 

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