Tuesday, December 17, 2013

At the Pantomime: A British Tradition

Our quest to experience as much as possible of uniquely British culture during our year here and share it with you led us to yesterday's performance of Robin Hood at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Robin Hood is this year's version of something called a pantomime, which we do not have in America. In fact, Americans might be forgiven for thinking the show was entirely performed by silent actors in black and white costumes. But no. The pantomime is a signature British entertainment, popular at Christmastime. We were urged not to pass this by. So, along with the American wife of one of Tim's coworkers, off we went. We were surrounded by groups of school children, so we got an excellent education in how to take in a "panto."

Based on what we saw and heard before and during the show, I can tell you that a pantomime must include, but is not limited to, the following key ingredients:

1. Slapstick humor, and plenty of it. The most crowd-pleasing scene involved nonstop sliding in bucketfuls of blue paint, and sprays of milk flying everywhere. I admit it, that stuff still cracks me up.

2. Copious interaction between the actors and the audience. The play's strength lies not its faithfulness to a historic legend (oh no, anachronistic jokes abounded) or even its fresh, meaningful narrative (not at all!), but the exuberant call-and-response from the stage, including such key traditional lines as:
        Actor: "There's WHAT behind me?"
        Screaming Children: "A SKELETON!!!!"
       Actor: "A SKETELON??"
       Children: "NO, A SKELETON!!!!"
       Actor: "WELL, WHY DIDN'T YOU TELL ME???"
       Children: "WE DID!!!!!"
       Actor: "OH NO YOU DIDN'T!!!"
       Children: "OH YES WE DID!!!!"

3. One character in drag -- in this case Nurse Nelly -- who tends to be the most ludicrously dressed and also the most comical character in the play.

4. Audience members being dragged up on stage for public attention or ridicule, depending on how you look at it. (We wisely chose to sit on the balcony.)

5. A villain, who insults the audience members and is loudly boo-ed every time he appears.

6. The purchase and consumption of ice cream cups during intermission.

I will say that this particular pantomime seemed less family-friendly than I expected, in that I just don't find liberal use of the word "sexy," skimpy costumes, lewd-ish jokes and shake-your-booty dancing sprinkled throughout to be either appropriate for kids or entertaining for this particular adult, but I wonder if there's greater tolerance for that sort of thing here or if I just don't tend to run across those situations too often back home. Or if I'm just cocooned by living in the Bible belt. There is that.

Anyway, all in all, good times. We all agreed to being amused not only by the performance on stage but also by the enthusiasm of our fellow audience members, for whom this is clearly a cherished tradition.


  1. Ah, yes. We all went to my parents' this last weekend, just to see their local panto. As we do every year. I thought of you all and that you really did need to see a panto. Personally, I would ALWAYS seek out a good amateur performance over a professional version - I find the pro ones too full of trying to be a bit 'clever' either with a 'celebrity' trying to promote themself or, as in this case, it being rather lewd. No, wouldn't have appealed to me either.

    BUT, panto is such a true British tradition I am delighted you went. I told my work colleague we were off to see the panto and he asked what we were going to see. I had no idea, and we came to the conclusion that it really didn't matter as the plot was pretty much incidental to the whole thing. Once we even went to see 'Frankenstein, the Panto' and my colleague and I were trying to work out how we could turn Star Wars into Panto. I'm sure it could be done...

  2. A Malaysian friend came with us, and she brought her German lodger. True cultural experience! To describe panto...

    Show opens with the villagers singing and dancing for no apparent reason. You are introduced to the Principal Boy (played by a girl in a short tunic and long boots) Boy is feckless but loves his mum (played by a man in outrageous costumes - the pantomime dame) There is usually another male character - younger brother, best friend or faithful servant.

    There is an evil villain plotting against the principal boy (evict the poor family, get him to steal the lamp, forcibly marry his true love. Any plot device will do. Build Death Star...)

    Boy falls in love with beautiful girl out of his reach. Fairy godmother / genie of the lamp / whatever intervenes, helps foil evil plot, boy makes his fortune, gets girl. Show ends with the wedding scene.

    All interspersed with random singing and dancing, slapstick from the two idiots (they are always there!) "it's behind you" "oh no it isn't, oh yes it is" boo and hiss the villain, "if you see anyone trying to steal my..insert item here..then be sure to call me, won't you boys and girls" Sometimes a pantomime animal - two people in an animal costume. The secondary male character may well fall in love with the princess' maid servant.

    The Pantomime Dame is definitely the best part, and will have many costume changes into increasingly ludicrous outfits with enormous bloomers over striped stockings and two balloons under the bodice!

    Who needs a plot?!

    1. Oh Gillian, you NAILED it!

      I think a Star Wars panto has excellent potential, by the way ...