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Theatre Diaries 4: The wild and crazy world of pantomime

Pantomime can be summed up with two words: anything goes
Sir Ian McKellen (l) as Widow Twankey and Roger Allam as Abbanazar in the revival of the pantomime Aladdin at the Old Vic Theatre in London in 2005. (Photo credit: Ian McKellen/Twitter)

When people ask me about the next Winding Rivers Arts & Performance Society theatre production, and I say “It’s a pantomime,” reaction can go one of two ways. Some people enthusiastically respond with “Pantomime? Yay!” Others, however, remain puzzled. “What’s a pantomime?” they ask uncertainly.

I could end this piece right now by saying “Wikipedia has an excellent article on the subject” and leave it at that. However, dear reader, I will not take the easy road. Herewith is a brief look at the pantomime, which could best be summed up with two words: anything goes.

First of all, do not let the presence of the word “mime” in the name confuse you, and conjure up thoughts of Marcel Marceau. It’s true that pantomime has its roots in Roman mime, where performers expressed meaning through gestures only, accompanied by music, but today pantomime refers almost exclusively to the British variant, which is a family entertainment usually based on a fairy tale, fable, or folk tale.

Pantomimes are generally performed during the Christmas season and contain songs, gags, slapstick comedy, stock characters representing good and evil, topical or local references, and audience participation. While they are usually based on existing works, those sources are used as a starting point only; it’s not uncommon to see mash-ups of several stories, and one version of, say, Cinderella could be quite different to another, retaining just the basic characters and plot.

Like so many things British, pantomime (often shortened to panto) draws on many sources: in addition to the Roman pantomimus (panto = “all” and mimus = someone performing all the roles in a story), it also contains elements of the Mummers Play of the Middle Ages. Many of the elements we see in panto today come from this play, which was loosely based on the legend of St. George and the Dragon, and contains coarse humour, stage fights, gender or role reversal, and the triumph of good over evil.

Another huge influence on the pantomime is the continental commedia dell’arte, which started in Italy and became familiar in Britain in the 17th century, where it turned into the English harlequinade and featured characters derived from the commedia: the eloping lovers Harlequin and Columbine, the blustering father Pantaloon, and the comic servants Clown and Pierrot. Variants of these characters are a common feature of today’s pantomime.

Until 1843, spoken drama was only allowed in a handful of theatres in London, so pantomimes performed outside these venues were silent apart from music. In the early days of the 19th century, English actor Joseph Grimaldi — the most popular entertainer of his time — seized on the comic potential of the (silent) Clown character, whose role soon came to dominate pantomime. As an agent of chaos, the Clown played a key role in the pantomime, and soon slapstick comedy and elaborate chase scenes became a much-loved feature of the productions.

Children (not unnaturally) loved the Clown and the mayhem of the fight scenes, chases, and knockabout comedy in which he played a central part. For many families in Victorian England, an annual trip to see the pantomime became a much-anticipated treat, and productions were usually mounted at Christmas, when families were together. For this reason, fairy tales and children’s stories continue to be a popular basis for many pantos, with Cinderella, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and His Cat, and Mother Goose among the most common sources.

Along the way, other traditions were introduced to the pantomime, such as having an older female character (the “Dame”) played by a man in drag (and the more outrageous the better). There is usually a chorus, members of which can also play multiple characters, and often an “animal” playing a key role (usually, but not always, an actor or actors inside an animal “skin” or costume). The script is usually tailored to include current references, or mentions of local people, places, or events, as well as mild sexual innuendo designed to go over the heads of children but amuse the adults.

Cast members will often leave the stage to interact with members of the audience, or invite volunteers up on stage to help at key moments. Audience members are encouraged to shout out words of support or warning to the actors as the action demands, and take part in some of the songs. Cheering the good guys (and hissing at the villain) is also encouraged.

In Britain, pantomime is still huge business: many local theatres depend on the profit they make from their annual panto to help support them through the rest of the year. Its traditions continue to inform British comedy, from the slapstick chase scenes in Benny Hill and the knockabout comedy of Fawlty Towers to the cross-dressing of Monty Python and the double entendres of Are You Being Served? Pantos are also a beloved venue for many entertainers, particularly soap opera stars and comedians, whose names help guarantee ticket sales.

Big-name stars sometimes get in on the panto act as well, with the most successful ones being those who fully enter into the spirit of the thing. One such actor was Sir Ian McKellen, who played Widow Twankey (the Dame role) in a 2004 production of Aladdin that was revived in 2005. Theatre critic Michael Billington wrote that McKellen “lets down his hair and lifts up his skirt to reveal a nifty pair of legs and an appetite for double entendre… At least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen’s Twankey and it was huge.”

So there you have it: a brief history of the pantomime, which can’t begin to do justice to just how anarchic, crazy, fast-paced, colourful, joyous, and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-oh-look-there’s-a-kitchen-sink it really is. With opening night of Winding Rivers’ first-ever panto just three weeks away, cast and crew can’t wait to see what audiences make of it. Get ready for a night of pure fun, and don’t be surprised if an actor tries to sit in your lap or beckon you up on stage. You’ve been warned.

Tickets ($15 each) are now available for Shaken, Not Stirred: The James Bond Panto, which is at the Ashcroft HUB for five performances starting on Nov. 23 (7 p.m. on Nov. 23, 24, 25; also 1 p.m. on Nov. 25 and 26). Tickets can be purchased at the HUB or online at