The year my husband and I stayed in England from late November through to early January, we enjoyed experiencing many British Christmas traditions. Traditions included mincemeat and mulled wine, Christmas markets, amazing decorations, caroling at the pub, and pantomime. This zany, audience-participation form of musical comedy affectionately referred to as “panto” is a beloved part of the season for many families.
What Is British Pantomime?
Let me start by saying what pantomime is not. It is not mime. People unfamiliar with the art form often zero in on the last four letters and assume pantomime is similar to mime, acting through movement without the use of words. There is nothing silent about pantomime. The musical comedy features actors with speaking roles, song and dance, and boisterous audience participation.
Pantomime plots are based on traditional children’s stories or fairytales such as Peter Pan, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast. Panto twists these stories and adds plenty of absurdity. The story may get sillier and funnier as it progresses. In the end, good wins out over evil.
Outlandish costumes and gender reversal of lead roles are hallmarks of pantomime as are corny jokes, slapstick, and crazy antics. Puns and visual comedy will send children into peals of laughter while adults snicker at mild innuendos.
The audience becomes a key part of the performance. You are encouraged to boo and hiss at the villain, yell out warnings, and answer direct questions. The cast will stop the action to egg you on to louder responses. Audience participation usually also extends to one of the musical numbers where one-half of the audience may be challenged to sing their chorus louder than the other half does theirs.
How Did Pantomime Become A Christmas Tradition?
Pantomime has its roots in Commedia dell’Arte, a 16-century Italian form of theater featuring dance, music, tumbling, acrobatics, and a cast of mischievous characters including Harlequin, a wily and unscrupulous man dressed in a patchwork costume and carrying a magic bat. Performances with Commedia characters spread across Europe in the 7th century.
By the 18th century, they began to appear on the London stage. These early pantomimes were based on classical stories set to music but had no speech. Drury Lane Theatre actor-manager David Garrick introduced a speaking Harlequin and employed Henry Woodward to write new stories incorporating old English folk stories.
Pantomime scenery and stage effects became more elaborate in the early 1800s. Until 1843, spoken drama was limited to a handful of patent theaters, of which Drury Lane was one. When that restriction was lifted, pantomime began to incorporate puns, wordplay, and audience participation. By the Victorian era, productions were extravagant. Productions customarily opened on Boxing Day, the day after Christmas, and thus became linked with the Christmas season.
How To Celebrate Pantomime
Today, the pantomime season begins in the lead-up to the Christmas season, with professional productions running from late November to early January. Christmas celebrations for many families include an afternoon or evening at the theater watching (and participating in) a pantomime.
Amateur theater groups also stage pantomimes. The amateur pantomime season typically starts after Christmas and runs January through March.
My Introduction To Pantomime
My first experience seeing a panto in person was during my English Christmas when my husband and I attended a performance of Aladdin. Although we were not the only adults in the audience without children, family groups of parents and/or grandparents with children were the majority.
The story follows Aladdin, the son of Widow Twanky, who runs a laundry. Aladdin is full of high jinx, chases the ladies, and dreams of a higher calling. When Princess Jasmine arrives on the scene, he falls madly in love. While Aladdin is pursuing Jasmine, he is pursued by the police for stealing an orange. Meanwhile, the evil wizard Abanazar tries to locate a fabled magic lamp. A spirit tells him he needs the help of Aladdin. This sets the stage for adventure, trickery, and a fun tale.
In this performance, a stocky man with glittery cheeks, hot pink lipstick, a yellow wig, and ample padding played the loud and brash Widow Twanky. Her daughters Wishy and Washy moaned about the work they had to do. A petite young woman played Aladdin. The Chief of Police’s name, Mustafa Poo, became the basis for a number of jokes. He encouraged us to boo and hiss louder when Abanazar came on stage.
When Abanazar invited Aladdin to accompany him to the cave to retrieve the magic lamp, Aladdin turned to the audience and asked if he should go. A rousing exchange of “No, you shouldn’t” from the audience and “Yes, I should” from Aladdin ensued. Aladdin ultimately does go with Abanazar. We know it will not go well.
There were lively musical numbers, expected and unexpected jokes, and a pie in the face. One of the most hilarious parts occurred when the cast performed a modified version of the Twelve Days of Christmas during which singers shot water guns into the audience and raced to catch a rubber chicken tossed across the stage. There was even a Bollywood dance routine at the end of the play.
Why I Love Pantomime
Pantomime is just plain feel-good fun from the festive atmosphere in the theater to silly laughter to toe-tapping music. The first awkwardness of yelling back to the cast quickly turns into enthusiastic participation.
The delight and engagement of the children in the audience add to the overall experience. At one point during the performance of Aladdin, a young boy in the front row nearly crawled onto the stage in his zeal to alert the inattentive cast to the zombie behind them. (Yes, there were zombies in the story.)
I left the theater with a smile and a light-hearted step. Two young girls and their grandparents walked ahead of us on the way to the car park. They bantered “No, you shouldn’t” and “Yes, I should” to each other the entire way.
How To Experience Pantomime
If you are in the United Kingdom during the Christmas season, you’ll have no trouble finding a pantomime near you. Pantomimes can be seen outside the United Kingdom, but they are a much rarer thing. Some Canadian cities have a Christmas pantomime tradition, but overall panto is not well-known. Big Panto Guide lists a couple of pantomimes running during the Christmas season in the United States and you’ll find a smattering of theater groups across the country staging pantomimes, primarily in the Christmas season.
If you come across a pantomime playing near you, should you go and see it? Yes, you should! Yes, you should!
If you can’t attend an overseas production, there are other special Christmas events to attend: