Theater Books of the Week #6: Panto Fever

Finishing the Hat can wait—stocking caps and elf hats beckon instead.

Two of my favorite BBC radio shows have both mined the frivolous, frolicsome “holiday pantomime” format for their Christmas-week episodes. (You can download them at the “Radio” site, or iTunes podcasts.)

The Archers is a radio soap opera which has been around for 60 years, and runs six 15-minute episodes a week. For many winters, the show’s agriculturally inclined villagers of the fictitious Ambridge band together to present a community holiday play. For all its rural realism, The Archers, like so many other shows, can’t resist play-within-a-play subplots. Amazingly, the Ambridgians didn’t present a panto last year. Two years ago, the main struggle was how they would convince a safety inspector that a flying effect in the show wasn’t dangerous. (Climactic solution: They lied. Take note, Broadway’s Spider-Man musical.) This year, it’s mostly been about the two lead players harboring secret crushes on each other while being asked to share an onstage kiss—a scenario familiar from a billion teen sitcoms and Archie comic books, but still entrancing nonetheless.

Then there’s The Now Show—a descendant of This Was the Week That Was and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and a spiritual cousin of The Daily Show or Weekend Update, which turns the week’s news events into sketch comedy and stand-up routines. This was how they covered the student riots (over increased tuition fees) a couple of weeks ago:

One of the most flamboyant protesters turned out to be the son of the guitarist from Pink Floyd, though he tried to explain: “It wasn’t my fault. I was being assaulted by the police. And the son of the guitarist from The Police.

This week, The Now Show did a Christmas special in the accustomed panto style, parodying fairy tales while savaging celebrities and powermongers.

Best joke, about Jack of Beanstalk fame having to sell the family cow as an economic austerity measure:

“She don’t produce a very high milk yield.”

“Well, she’s two blokes in a cow suit, so it’s not that surprising. See, there’s one in the head does all the actions, he’s called Front Legg, and the one that follows him with his head up his backside… he’s called Nick Clegg.”

Here, fromconventional panto purveyor, is a list of common panto conceits:

Invariably you have a baddie e.g. a wicked witch or evil queen – who is very bad and the audience will hiss and boo them. If they dont the baddie or one of the other cast will make the audience hiss and boo.

Also you have a ‘goodie’ who the story is usually about e.g. Cinderella, Snow White, Aladdin etc. Often these characters are obviously mentally retarded because they fall for the most ridiculous things usually from the baddie.

Often there will be the goodie’s friend e.g. Buttons who helps the audience understand the story and is friendly with the audience telling them jokes and throwing them sweets etc. Often this character will get some members of the audience on stage (adults and/or children) to do tasks which they will find funny but will be very emabarressed to do on stage which the rest of the audience will laugh at.

They will usually be a man dressed as a middle aged woman (a panto dame) who will be related to or have no relationship at all with the goodie. The dame is usually well over the top in dress, make up, and manner, and usually have a large repetoire of jokes and short amusing sketchs.

The pantomime goodie will often be a woman dressed as a young man (a principal boy) who should have nice legs displayed. Often the goodie will fall in love with another women dressed as a young woman. Nothing is seen as unusual with this

Then there are various other characters/animals etc e.g. pantomime horse, cow, wicked sisters, lords, ladies, dukes or litterally anything thrown in to make up the ‘story’ which must have a happy ending, and good must triumph over evil. Characters will sing for any reason or no reason at all.

There is often a fair amount of innuendo and satire on current events. Innuendo MUST go way over the childrens heads or the adults will feel uncomfortable and the atmosphere destroyed.. E.g. a smutty comment must have an obvious literal meaning e.g. Dick Whittingtons girl friend talking about him “Oh I do love my Dick!” the children will draw nothing except the literal meaning from it, the adults will snigger.

Whenever a cast member says ‘Oh no you cant’ (or variant’ ) or “Oh yes I can” the audience has to bellow back the corresponding reply. (several times) This is encouraged and to be as loud as possible.

As much as possible the audience is encourage to shout, or sing, or anything.

And here, for your playing-at-home enjoyment, is a site where you can read and purchase a wide range of complete panto scripts from a shop supremely devoted to the form, Lazy Bee.

Oh, yes you can!