by Nicola Thornton
Ropetackle Arts Centre
Where’s the one place you can take all the family at Christmas and be guaranteed they will crack a smile, even those that don’t like smiling? (I’m looking at you, too-cool teenagers!)
Yes, it’s the Christmas pantomime! An explosion of noise, dry-ice, jokes, music, cheesy scripts, creaking sets and gaudy costumes that any other time of year might have us running for the hills, but at Christmas it is suddenly the best thing you’ll ever do.
It starts the minute you arrive at the venue. The staff and volunteers all have bright eyes and wide grins that actually look genuine, the café or kiosk is serving Christmas-themed cookies and cupcakes and Christmas pudding flavoured ice-cream. The bar is serving large glasses of everything, including delicious mulled wine. The smell of excited anticipation is everywhere.
As you take your seat, the questions start. Child number 1: “What’s behind that curtain?” Child number 2: “I think I do want to go to the loo now, can you please take me?” Spouse: “Have you got a wet-wipe?” Grandparent: “Are you sure you won’t get a parking ticket?”
Teen: “Why am I here again?”
As you answer them all with a wide grin that looks anything but genuine, something starts to happen in the wings. The curtain goes up, the lights go down and you’re off – off to that land of chaos, magic, satin, glitter and glitz, where nothing is real. You encounter a beautiful princess, a handsome prince, perhaps a genie or fairy godmother, a clown who keeps tripping up, two ends of an animal costume and some sprightly young dancers.
An ample-bosomed Dame – who often looks better than you on a good day – points out to the audience, hands-on hips – animated and proud – and keeps the show, and the gags, on the road. The villain – boo! hiss! – is dressed in black velvet and has your youngest hiding behind their hands but loving them at the same time.
You stomp, you shout, you tell them “He’s behind you!”, you laugh, you groan. You sing, you clap, you watch, you join in, and you chuckle at something that has made the Dame crease up. You pity the poor bloke two rows in front who gets mercilessly picked on and then cheer at his good-sportiness as the audience applaud. You sneak a peek at everyone in your group and you notice one thing: they are all, bar no one, absolutely caught up in the moment.
You find yourself caring that the leading character reaches their goal and lives happily ever after. You want the villain to learn a lesson and become a better person. You believe in the power of community and people working together to make a dream come true. You look around and see the same hope, joy, and wishes on everyone’s face. Pantomime is a universal, unifying experience and the joy is contagious.
At the interval, the clamber for the loos and refreshments is a messy one. Everyone discusses their favourite character, that bit that happened that clearly wasn’t in the script, the Dame’s eyelashes that look like spiders and the brilliant dancing. The fact Evie from child number 1’s class is sitting two rows behind. The noise is heightened, the excitement palpable.
The second half starts with gusto and you’re off again. The set has changed from a forest to a castle. Everyone has a different costume on, especially the Dame, who is now on her fourth outfit of the evening. There’s a touching moment when the clown and the leading light, fed up with being misunderstood by everyone else, vow to be BFFs. There’s more laughs, more slapstick, more props, more getting up and singing along – more fun, more games. There’s a moment when the leading couple find each other, against all the odds, and everyone breathes a huge sigh of relief. It’s all going to be OK.
The finale is here. The part where everyone is on stage at the same time, where a wedding may or may not take place. Where the princess looks the prettiest she has ever looked, the prince the most handsome. The costumes have changed again. The Dame makes another grand entrance; this time in her biggest, flounciest wig. The villain is welcomed, having changed for the better, learned the error of their ways. The silliest song gets sung again (and again) and you get on your feet and all join in. You catch your teen’s eye and they smile a real smile, a child again in an unguarded moment.
You wave, clap and whoop as the cast take their bows. The lights go up, the curtain falls, you gather up your brood and weave through to the exit. Two hours of escapism now over as you head back home – tired and happy, with a ringing in your ears. Another family memory made – and that repetitious song inside your head till spring…
Ropetackle Arts Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea, W. Sussex is a vibrant performing arts venue that prides itself on being family friendly.
Find out more at www.ropetacklecentre.co.uk