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Dawn French and Julian Clary Dawn French and Julian Clary star in this year's Panto at the London Palladium. Photo courtesy Image 1st

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An American’s Guide to 'Panto'
Seasoned Panto-Fan Peter Lawler gives us an American eye view of the British Pantomime
By Peter Lawler
Published on November 21, 2018


Britain. Christmas season. And more important than the native traditions of Love Actually playing in a constant loop on the telly and overdosing on mince pies way too early in the season, is the Great British Pantomime.

Oh no it’s not! Oh yes it is!

We don’t get pantomime much in America, not at least as far as I can remember, growing up in small towns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Christmas concerts, stage adaptations of A Christmas Carol, sure, but the bizarre and uniquely English hyperexaggeration of all that is strange, gender bending, transgressive and joyfully ridiculous eludes us as a culture. So I have to admit, it has taken some getting used to.

Then again, raising a child in Great Britain also makes it impossible to avoid. Instead of doing so I have therefore approached it with as open a mind as possible and find the charms of this garishly loud genre hard to resist. Being an adoptive East Londoner I could be slightly biased, but there seems no place better this year to check out the Christmas offering than The Hackney Empire’s Aladdin, celebrating its 20th anniversary with writer and evil stepmother/sorceress extraordinaire Susie McKenna at the helm, which will be captivating audiences until the 6th of January, or Twelfth Night as the Elizabethans would put it, as it is traditional for ‘The Panto’ to run for as long as the Christmas season does.

Oddly enough, the nineteenth century French poet Baudelaire was much in awe of the art of the genre, praising it as ‘the refinement, the quintessence of comedy, the pure comic element, purged and concentrated… with the English actors’ special talent for hyperbole, all these monstrous buffooneries took on a strangely thrilling reality.’

He’s not wrong. It’s brash, it’s exaggerated and it’s everything that works about in-yer-face British comedy. So what should one expect from this magical spectacle, this cross-dressing campstravaganza? To name but a few:

1. To participate: You don’t go to the Panto for a passive night of sitting in the theater I’m afraid, so if you were hoping for something akin to Ibsen’s Ghosts, you’d better head to a theater underneath a pub across town. Only us stomping, dancing, singing along and gleefully clapping lunatics here. You will stand. You will learn lyrics, you may even be called up on stage. As one of last year’s dames, Tony Whittle, put it, ‘the audience are another member of the cast and they take part as much as we do.’ And it is all good fun in the name of the season of goodwill so let go and embrace it.

2. Subversion: Don’t be fooled. Pantomimes are silly tomfoolery and utter and complete madness for two hours on end, fueled by the mere whiff of mulled wine. But they are not mindless. Expect a political joke or two (the EU, the Maybot, the uselessness of the government) and probably don’t bother attending if you’re precious about our president. There has been a fantastic Trump joke for two years running. Entertainment of the people, the panto is a sympathetic celebration of all people from all classes and walks of life, but, as with the traveling troupes of old on carnival days, they do love poking fun at those on high.

3. To laugh: The stuffiest and most pretentious hipster– okay, me – will leave the panto with sore sides having exhausted their supply of endorphins laughing so hard. Such is the bacchanalian wackiness, the witty wordplay (it’s all about the banter), and yes, the subtle and sharp satire laced through McKenna’s scripts. Although I brought my 10 year old, much like the best of comedy, the jokes work on many levels and indeed can make you feel like you’re 10 again.

4. Gender fluidity: There are actors who have made their career, such as the magically expressive, Olivier award-winning Clive Rowe, out of strutting the boards as The Dame of the pantomime, the camp, matriarch presiding over the story. But the gender subversion bursts through the story, and the humor and the joy with which Kat B and Tony Whittle (who will also appear this year as Sergeant Dumplin) played off each other in last year’s production of Cinderella as twin dames (unusual but not unprecedented) was a sheer delight. Men playing women and indeed at times women playing men is woven into the fabric of the genre. So go with it.

5. Living color: From the theatregoers with their light up, kaleidosopically colored swords and glittery batons, to the wigs and costumes and the bright fluorescents to the rattle of chip packets and the crinkle of the unwrapping of sweets, to the seasonal olfactory odor of warming spiced mulled wine wafting through stalls, the panto is a feast for the senses. Purples and pinks light up the stage, screaming out at you to enjoy the garishness and the kitsch that builds to an unparalleled visual spectacle not unlike many National Lampoon-like suburban American neighborhoods, trying to outdo each other during the holidays, lighting up whole streets with Yuletide incandescence, siphoning power from the national grid in the process. So, we yanks should feel right at home.

6. The Unexpected: Finally, be prepared to be surprised. Check any and all hangups and inhibitions at the door. Chat to your neighbor in the seat next to you about your first time at the panto, stomp, cheer, and allow yourself to enter into that sense of childhood. Because one of the most beautiful things about this form of storytelling is that it doesn’t ask you to take part. It demands that you do so.

The magic, very much depends, on you. Enjoy!

Check out your local theater listings, or here are a couple of suggestions:

Aladdin is at the Hackney Empire from November 24th to January 6, 2019. Tickets available at www.hackneyempire.co.uk

Snow White is at the London Palladium from December 8th to January 13, 2019. lwtheatres.co.uk/whats-on/snow-white-at-the-london-palladium

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