by Mark Phillips
Ropetackle Arts Centre
Images by Richie Mountain
Pantomime is a curious British institution. Each year as we head into Christmas, theatres up and down the country start planning their festive finales; a magical mix of comedy, music, drama and spectacle, all aimed at bringing families together and sparking imaginations.
The funny thing about panto, or should I say one of the many funny things, is that it’s neither originally British, nor anything to do with Christmas. In fact, British panto emerged from Italy, and specifically the Commedia dell’arte – an ancient theatre show of improvised comedy. Commedia dell’arte featured a range of stock characters which today we recognise as the dame, the villain, the hero, the fairy and so on. As for being a Christmas tradition, well, that remains something of a mystery. While pantos have always been performed during holiday seasons, one theory suggests the Italian form merged with an ancient English folk play traditionally performed around Christmas time, and featuring several stock characters similar to those in Commedia dell’arte.
So, that’s enough history, how do pantos remain such an enduring feature of our festive calendars? Well, there are many reasons. Panto nowadays is very much a family affair, particularly geared towards entertaining children but always amusing the adults (innuendo, anyone?) Pantos draw from a wide pool of fairy tales from all over the world. English stories such as Dick Whittington and Jack and the Beanstalk stand alongside European tales like Cinderella and Puss in Boots. One of the most popular pantos, Aladdin, is an ancient folk tale from the Middle East! Add to this modern twists on classic novels such as Treasure Island and Peter Pan, and you’ve no shortage of enchanting adventures to choose from.
The magic of panto is not just in the story, it’s in the whole experience. Pantos are a chance for families to share quality time together. With increasingly busy lifestyles and the demands of work, time together as a family is a precious thing, and panto is a chance to treasure it. Pantos make the imagined real. For around two hours, families can escape from reality and immerse themselves in a fantastical world of fun, magic, excitement and togetherness. The traditional battle of good versus evil underscores every panto. And even though we all know who wins, there is nothing quite so uplifting as seeing these morals reaffirmed. But not so fast, there’s tension, there’s anticipation, there’s always what if… So the shared sense of happiness that eventually fills the auditorium is palpable, and for children – the triumph of good over evil is a powerful message of hope and inspiration.
Of course, nothing is quite what it seems in panto, and this is perhaps its most joyful quality – the chance to join in! Panto wouldn’t be panto without audience participation. With the fourth wall well and truly dismantled, the unexpected is laid out before you. Unlike other shows, you can shape the turn of events (well, kind of). Will the dame look behind herself? Will the hero know where to turn? Will the villain ever get the message (booooo)!? Boys and girls, it’s over to you. There’s nothing quite like the passion of children, energised by a gripping story and moved to cheer, jeer, laugh, sing and, in some instances, give frank advice (don’t you just love them). Participation like this makes the magic of panto just that bit more real.
So that’s why after all these years, panto is still going strong. It’s little wonder that celebrities (cough) line up to play leading roles, but more than this, many panto companies now feature local children in their productions. Companies that support this give children vital opportunities to benefit from the developmental and creative fulfilment of theatre and arts participation. Look out for local auditions and drama groups and get your children involved now. Drama improves children’s well-being in many ways, and panto is the perfect platform for aspiring performers. But remember, being in the audience is just as much fun as being on stage at panto, so whatever your inclination, panto has it covered.
And there you have it. The joys of panto. That curious, British-but-kind-of-Italian, Christmas-but-let-me-come-back-to-you-on-that, magical, interactive theatrical fairy tale extravaganza. Full of love, happiness, courage, fear, comedy, farce, triumph and festivity. Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it. But if you’re still debating whether it’s worth visiting the panto this year, listen up. Boys and girls, you know what to do, altogether now… “Oh yes it is!”
Ropetackle Arts Centre in Shoreham offers a year-round programme of family events including its Christmas panto – discover what’s on