The history of pantomime

<em>Time Out</em> takes a look at the history of pantomime in all its costumed, audience-chanting glory.

The Knowledge

Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without the staging of a wonderfully overblown rendition of a classic children’s tale. But where does this tradition come from? Are you sitting comfortably? Then let us begin…

The beginning
As any self-respecting Brit will tell you, panto is as crucial to the UK festive season as roast turkey and the Queen’s speech. Its roots, however, date all the way back to the Middle Ages. We will not bore you with the details of its evolution (a fascinating ride through Italian comedia dell’arte, French harlequins and stock characters such as ‘Pantaloon’). Suffice to say, the first pantomime story with a direct line to what is still performed today made its appearance on London’s Drury Lane in 1773. The story? Jack The Giant Killer, which, in a nice bit of serendipity has evolved into Jack And The Beanstalk, soon to be showing at a theatre near you.

Gender confusion
Panto would be nothing without its Dame. Be she Widow Twanky (Aladdin) or Dame Trott (Jack And The Beanstalk), a panto’s Dame is a force to be reckoned with. A parody of womanhood (she’s traditionally played by a male comedian), Dames are bawdy and ever ready with an innuendo-laden aside or two. One of panto’s many anomalies is its gender swapping yin to the Dame’s yang (or should that be the other way round?). The principal boy, such as Jack, Dick Whittington or Peter Pan, is traditionally played by a girl in tights. The theatre, you see, is a place of freedom where individuals need not be fettered by the restrictions of society’s gender roles. That, and the fact that when panto first became popular, in the Victorian era, it was the only way to see the turn of a shapely female calf in public.

The horse and his ass
Panto is nothing if not a level playing field – it’s not just the human roles that are mixed up. One of the genre’s best-loved traditions is the shuffle-on and shuffle-off of the panto horse. And shuffle is the right word. One of his most endearing features is that this is one equine star with no sense of direction – possibly because he’s made up of two people stuffed into one vision-impaired costume. That it’s widely believed that the phrase ‘a horse’s ass’ (or ‘arse’ as the Brits say it) comes from the ignominy of being cast in the rear-end role – the worst (though possibly the funniest) to be assigned – pretty much says it all.

The chanting
Who likes interactive theatre? We do! Oh, no you don’t. Oh, yes we do! (and so on and so forth). What is it about panto that brings out the great big kid in us all? It definitely has something to do with the boomerang chorus of chanting and the childish delight we all get to take in watching Jack (or Aladdin or Dick Whittington) pretend not to see as we all shout ‘It’s behind you!’ Start practising yours now.

Jack And The Beanstalk, Madinat Theatre, matinees and evenings, Dec 21-Jan 3. Phone 04 366 6546; www.madinattheatre.com

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