Why you should care
Because couldn’t your holiday traditions use a little more levity?
An actor in drag endowed with enormous boobs stands alongside an actress in male britches. Every year they tell the same jokes, flirtatiously sing silly tunes, bring a good-over-evil narrative to life and comment on everything — except much about Christmas. Yet theatergoers consider it a great holiday tradition, because nothing says Christmas to Brits quite like cross-dressing slapstick, screaming children and sexual innuendo.
The backbone is audience interaction. The crowd shouts, screams, boos and hisses …
British pantomimes run from late November through mid-January, and the question is not are you going, but which panto are you seeing? “For many people, a trip to the theater to see the pantomime is as big a part of Christmas as roast turkey dinner,” says Simon Sladen, assistant curator of modern and contemporary performance at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. ’Tis the season for the goodies to take the stage to cheers while baddies slink into view amid boos. A man plays the leading dame, and a woman often plays the starring male role, retelling classic fairy tales like Cinderella or Jack and the Beanstalk with a comedic twist. Chants from ticket holders include “Oh, yes it is” to “Oh, no it isn’t,” or the classic “It’s behind you!” to warn those on stage of imminent danger.
Unlike its silent namesake, these colorful productions — aka pantos — are a mishmash of very verbal theatrical genres, from Italian commedia dell’arte’s slapstick to the medieval mystery plays and the Everyman play’s morality. Pantomime, which originally meant “imitator of all,” is “reflective of the world around it,” says Sladen, referring to how it incorporates contemporary political and cultural jokes, modern music and fashion. Members of the audience are meant to see aspects of themselves in the characters and identify with their struggles and successes.
In the early 1800s, shows included twirls from a famous ballerina or even a juggler; today, they’re more likely to include a soap-opera star or the local bank manager singing songs inspired by Top 10 hits. The pantos introduce many children to theater, says Matt Devitt, associate director of the Queen’s Theatre in Hornchurch, and because they’re grounded in familiar fairy tales, pantos tell young audiences “that if you’re resolute and true, then you will succeed. Evil will be defeated.” The goal, he adds, is to secure theater lovers for life.
Each production has similar ingredients. First, it must provide laughs for the entire family. Five-year-olds giggle at the antics while Dad and Grandma snicker at risqué innuendos and political jokes that fly over younger heads. Music and dancing are commonplace, as are bright, colorful sets and costumes. But the backbone is audience interaction. The crowd shouts, screams, boos, hisses, laughs, cries and even catches candy tossed from the stage — so much so that they become integral characters. “In theory, the show can’t continue unless the audience shouts,” Sladen says.
Last year, Britain hosted 250 different productions, ranging from the big lights of London’s Hackney Empire to small-town and village productions. And the tradition is slowly catching on elsewhere, with an annual panto in Johannesburg, South Africa; this year’s offering of Sleeping Beauty at California’s Pasadena Playhouse; and the Piccolo Theatre in Illinois, which is featuring its 14th annual holiday panto; just to name a few.
Devitt attributes a love for holiday pantos to the fact that the stories — despite lacking references to Christmas or Santa — are simply reassuring. “We know the characters … we know we’re not gonna get any unpleasant surprises,” he says. Cross-dressing actors, cheap flirtation and silly jokes — what better way to spread a bit of holiday cheer? Get a taste of the fun in the clip below, and see if you aren’t pulled into the action just like the rest of the audience.
Christmas Panto, c. 1999