I really can’t decide where I stand on pantomimes. For those of you who don’t know (I hear they’re not big outside the UK), pantomimes are a slightly bizarre act performed on stage around the Winter months. The story will usually be based on a fairy tale, such as Snow White or Jack and the Beanstalk, and feature a variety of roles – sometimes requiring actors to play characters of a different gender (most famously, the dame is always played by a man) – such as the heroes, various comedic characters and over-the top, cackling villains.
Now, I’m not the greatest fan of comedy. Or rather, I’m not the greatest fan of popular, modern comedies; sitcoms are how I’d imagine a combination of concussion and tinnitus to feel, ‘rom-coms’ are hideous in every single respect and most other comedy films genuinely make me feel unwell. Yet I enjoy watching Monty Python, and enjoy gags in TV or films when they’re not hurled at you in an attention-seeking frenzy.
Pantomimes don’t fall into either category. Everyone knows the stories, so I don’t get enjoyment that way. The style is usually slapstick, that crude art-form which inexplicably has most people my age in hysterics, and the jokes deliberately bad. And yet, astonishingly, I enjoy pantomimes. It’s as if the cast’s enjoyment of the production filters down into the crowd, fully immersing us in an experience which to all accounts ought to be ridiculous.
The most significant difference between pantomimes and traditional plays is the audience participation within pantomimes. There usually comes a point where the Dame speaks to the audience, introducing herself and warning the cast how to react if the villain comes onstage, followed by a practice of hissing and booing (“come on, louder than that!”). There’s always a sequence where the characters are looking for someone who pops up in the background, and the audience obligingly shouts “behind you!!”. There’s usually a point where an argument takes place, involving the audience once again, along the lines of “oh yes it is!” “Oh no it isn’t!” And at the end, the audience is invited to sing along to the the finale.
This must all sound a bit strange and childish. Certainly, pantomimes seem geared up to appeal to children, but they’re also taken absolutely seriously. I performed in one myself two years ago, and it never felt like we were dumbing the production down. I say taken seriously – there are infinite opportunities for ad-libbing which makes even the director laugh, often even by an audience member (particularly in local pantomimes), but the course of the show never goes too far off track. There are also many roles for children who want to be involved, and pantomimes often form the first experiences many people have of acting on stage. Children always act with surprising ability in the pantomimes I’ve seen.
I’m not sure how enjoyable non-local pantomimes would be, however. Half the fun for me is knowing 70% of the cast, understanding every in-joke and discussing it with the cast afterwards. In local pantomimes you do get higher audience participation, as members of the audience most likely know several cast members well. I can imagine it’s a much more formal experience in professional pantomimes, which I really don’t think would work. But you do get very popular pantomimes featuring famous actors, so there is perhaps an appeal.
If you’ve never seen a pantomime before, I would highly advise you to seek one out at least once in your lifetime!