Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas panto

One British holiday tradition we Americans are unfamiliar with is the Christmas panto. Panto - or pantomime - is a popular theatre presentation that includes singing, dancing, slapstick, audience participation, and buffoonery.

We went to see the panto "Dick Whittington and His Cat" at the Hackney Empire Theatre. The theatre, which was built in 1901, is a stunningly restored classic music hall, and I couldn't stop marveling at its beauty. With its multiple curved balconies and opera boxes, it seats 1000 people in a space that's both intimate and majestic.

Theatre lobby
Pantos also have a long tradition of including transvestism as a convention of the performance. The young male hero is played by an actress, in what is known as a "breeches role."  Another stock character is an older female, played by a male actor in drag. Nowadays, many Christmas pantos take this convention to its logical extension and the productions have become gay-themed drag shows, but "Dick Whittington and His Cat" played it relatively straight.

Balcony and stalls
Pantos are family entertainment, despite the saucy innuendo, and the audience was full of children. A crusty old vendor outside sold flashing LED novelties like bunny ears and magic wands.

Audience participation is a big part of the tradition, and the performers kept the audience engaged, calling for responses, encouraging cat-calls and shout-outs to "look out behind you!" or "wake up!" We were pulled to our feet for sing-alongs, and encouraged to boo the villains loudly.

The beautiful painted ceiling
Though conventional, with a few simple special effects, the production showed a relatively lavish budget. The scenery was old fashioned painted drops, wings and borders. A full stage scene was followed by an 'in one" transition scene while the sets changed behind a scrim. Even so, each scene was nicely done and imaginative. There was a scene set on board a ship; a scene under the ocean; a scene on a jungle island. Steve Elias, as the star of the show in drag, had an elaborate new costume in every scene, complete with flamboyant hats and props.

Publicity photo of Steve Elias, the star of the show
Pantos tell traditional stories, but update them with contemporary details from popular culture. The Fairy Bowbells, striving to earn her fairy wings for a good deed, was a plump little Bollywood cutie, flying in on visible wires from the wings. The King Rat sported rasta-style dreadlocks, and the ingenue rocked it like Mariah Carey. We were treated to "gangnam-style" dance numbers, and in the jungle scene a giant costumed gorilla danced to the reggae tune "Monkey Man."  There were political jokes that went right over our American heads, but it was clear that the rest of the audience got them. The give-and-take was localized, with references to the Hackney audience and disparaging comments about rival neighborhoods.

The plot was simple and, as the evening progressed, mattered little in comparison with the gags and the visuals. The show lasted for two hours and forty-five minutes - and, surprising me, the audience of young children remained engaged. We got just as involved, heartily booing and cheering with the rest of them!

What a fun tradition for the holidays. Would it go over in America?


cookingwithgas said...

I am enjoying your trip as I following along.
No paper was harmed in the posting of this comment.

Hamish Mack said...

I always think that these shows have a contract with the audience so that if the audience enters into the "panto world" the players will deliver the goods.

materfamilias said...

This post brought back some great memories. First, of a little record my mom used to play for my siblings & I, way back in the late 50s, a children's record that narrated the tale of Dick Whittington and his Cat.
And I also recalled the Christmas pantomimes we've taken our kids to over the years -- always such raucous fun with the audience shouting out warnings to their favourites on stage. The panto tradition is still alive and well in Vancouver, at least, if perhaps a more watered down version of the real thing you were able to experience. Sounds as if you're having a splendid time over there!