I’ve been asked to explain British pantomime. I am not British. My husband is. But we both recently went to our first panto, Sleeping Beauty, in Swansea, Wales.
A British panto is the retelling of a classic fairytale in musical form. The lead players are usually well-known actors from TV, stage, etc. Some of the lesser characters are brought in or well known local actors. The ensemble consists of kids and adults who are local actors/theatre students. Audience participation, in the form of "boo", "yay", "awwww", etc., is encouraged. There is often a good and/or bad fairy, a simpleminded comedian who interacts with the kids in the audience and a "dame"- a guy dressed in bad drag. There is a lot of innuendo meant to go over the heads of the kids and entertain the adults, much of which comes from the dame. There are local jokes and references to the main actors' best-known roles.
This play had Sleeping Beauty, her father the King, the Prince, Silly Billy (the simpleminded comedian), a dame (Nurse Nelly), a good fairy (yay!) and fairy “Bodybag” (boo!!!). The Prince and Sleeping Beauty played the story straightforwardly. Everyone else went back and forth between moving the story along and just goofing around - improvising and entertaining the audience while the set was being changed, etc. The first act was fairly close to the plot of the fairytale. It began with Sleeping Beauty being born and the fairies lining up to give her gifts. Bodybag was not invited and thus cursed the baby to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and die before her eighteenth birthday. It ended with Sleeping Beauty pricking her finger on a spinning wheel despite the best efforts of the Prince and the King.
At some point the audience was thrown sweets (candy) and squirted with water guns. (My daughter was sorely disappointed not to get wet.) Nurse Nelly meanwhile, picked out some hapless guy from the audience and flirted with him shamelessly from the stage for the whole show. A somewhat traditional scene had Billy and Nurse Nelly baking. They were making "toad in the hole" - a British dish with sausages hidden in a kind of bready batter. Aside from the sausage innuendos, there was flour flying in Billy's face and smoke from the oven that prompted the audience to obligingly shout "Look behind you!"
The second act was a departure from the fairytale. Of course the good fairy had changed the curse from death to a sleep of 100 years. How was the Prince going to live 100 years to awaken her? She sent him flying thru time! The flying scene was fantastic with wonderful special effects. I leaned over to my daughter and said "[The Prince] is flying". She condescendingly whispered back to me that he was just on strings.
When the Prince landed, he went to Sleeping Beauty and awakened her. But Bodybag was not done. I am afraid to tell you what happened next! Being a huge fan of the actor who played the Prince, I was prepared to storm the stage but I held myself back. The bad fairy tried to steal the Prince! She hypnotized him and tried to get him to marry her! (Boo!!! Hiss!!!!) Sleeping Beauty showed up just in time and he was saved by the power of love. (Awwwww!!!!) Then Bodybag turned into DRAGON Bodybag and tried to stop them. The swashbuckling hero fought the dragon and eventually killed it. The closing scene with plenty of singing and dancing was Sleeping Beauty’s eighteenth birthday party combined with her wedding.
Space didn't allow Becky to include all the Pantomime traditions we were treated to. Wikipedia has an excellent description of Pantomime, and how it works, if you want to find out more. And of course, we welcome your comments and questions.