Pantomime, not to be confused with mime, is as British as things get.
That said, it can trace its roots back to the Commedia dell’arte (Harlequin, Punchinello, Scaramouch and all that) but has been modified since its introduction in the 18th century into an uniquely British theatrical form.
Basically, you take a traditional fairy tale or popular story and weave a series of risqué jokes, bad puns and songs around the basic story.
Popular Pantomimes include :
- Babes in the Wood (which bizarrely often features Robin Hood)
- Beauty and the Beast
- Dick Whittington and His Cat
- Goldilocks and the Three Bears
- Jack and the Beanstalk
- Mother Goose
- Peter Pan
- Puss in Boots
- Robinson Crusoe
- Sleeping Beauty
- Snow White
There are a series of quite strict ‘rules’ that define a pantomime, these conventions are pretty impenetrable when explained in writing, but most Brits understand them implicitly:
Pantomime is performed at Christmas time, but the festive season is not mentioned, it just happens that way.
The lead character (Robinson Crusoe, Aladdin, Jack (with the beanstalk)) is known as the ‘principal boy’ and is played by an attractive actress.
The principal boy’s older mother/guardian is known as ‘the dame’ and is played by an actor in grotesque make up. In the case of Cinderella there are two ‘dames’ – the ‘ugly sisters’.
The principal boy often has an attendant animal, such as a horse or cow, played by two actors with one playing the front legs and head or the animal, with the other actor doubled over playing the back legs.
There’s often a good fairy, who by tradition always enters from the right of the stage, the villain always enters from the left.
There’s usually a very messy slapstick scene, possibly the Dame having to bake a wedding cake or similar that causes a great deal of mess.
There is considerable interaction between the audience and the cast. For example the principal boy is usually unaware of the arrival of the villain and is alerted by the audience with cries of “He’s behind you!” this is often answered with “oh no he isn’t” and responding cries of “oh yes he is”… and so on
Towards the end of the show a few children are often invited to sing a song with the Dame, either a traditional music hall song, or a popular song with modified lyrics.
Everybody lives happily ever after – except the villain, unless he’s seen the error of his ways.
It’s not as complex as it seems, honest!
Most regional theatres host pantomimes, as do a number of theatres on the outskirts of London, it’s often the first (or only) encounter many children have with the theatre.
Pantomime is an important source of revenue for struggling theatres, and they often feature fading pop stars, TV soap stars, and so on to attract audiences.
In recent years a number of American actors have been enticed over to Britain to perform, including David Hasselhoff, Priscilla Presley, Mickey Rooney and Henry Winkler who performs a mean Captain Hook in Peter Pan.
- Henry Winkler as Captain Hook