An unconventional Christmas tradition in live theatre
By Clive Ramroop, Contributor
This is the first article in a series about pantomime productions in Greater Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. Next week, we will hear from the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society on its upcoming show, The Frog Princess.
Welcome to the world of British pantomime, or “panto” for short.
For the uninitiated, a panto is an interactive, musical comedy production that breaks just about every rule of live theatre. It is a centuries-old Christmas tradition in the United Kingdom with followings in various British-rooted countries, including Canada.
The standard style of a panto puts outrageously comedic spins on classic stories, legends, or fairy tales, such as Robin Hood or Cinderella. Some of those twists include certain casting conventions as core elements in the panto tradition.
While there is always a lead female ingénue, damsel, or princess role known as the “principal girl,” the panto also casts key characters in gender-reversed roles.
The “principal boy” is the lead male hero, like Aladdin, Prince Charming, or even King Arthur, who’s sometimes played by a woman, but not always wearing fishnets and heels.
Then there is the dame, usually a mothering or man-hungry (or both) woman played by a man with no attempt to make him (her?) appear the least bit attractive. The louder the costume and make-up, the stronger the comedic effect.
Musical selections can be anything from novelty tunes like “Tie Me Kangaroo Down,” selections from Broadway plays, and even popular hits like “Bad Romance,” “Thriller,” or “Takin’ Care of Business” reworked with new lyrics to fit them into the show.
The jokes also range all across the spectrum, from puns so terrible that even a grandfather would groan at them, to clever riffs on contemporary pop culture or real world events, regardless of their anachronistic presence. Picture the Sheriff of Nottingham sending his stooges on a mission, saying, “Succeed and I will reward you. Fail… and I’ll make you watch re-runs of Toddlers & Tiaras for the next five years!”
But perhaps the most central and essential factor in a panto is audience participation. The audience does not simply sit down, shut up, and watch the show. In fact, the crowd is encouraged to boo and cheer throughout the show. If the audience doesn’t react loudly enough, the performers will force them to yell louder. The players don’t merely break the fourth wall; they obliterate it, playing directly to the crowd, and often going directly into the house while still in character.
“My favourite thing about pantos is that the fourth wall is always broken,” said panto player Michelle Gaetz. She played the title role of White Rock Players’ Club’s Pinocchio last year and will be appearing in the Fraser Valley Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s The Frog Princess this November.
“You get the free will of improv and the luxury of a structured musical theatre piece in one show,” Gaetz said.
It’s a unique theatrical experience that can’t be found anywhere else; like an over-the-top cartoon in flesh and blood.