panto time' is a magical phrase which conjures up feelings
of a typically English Christmas. Cold and frosty mornings,
carol singing and that time of year everyone dreads for
fear of overindulgence and the inevitable family rows. One
aspect is still, thankfully, akin to a sacred institution.
Pantomime. And it's still going strong!
Thankfully many people still take their children, grandchildren, or just themselves if they can find no young excuse, to a peculiar theatrical performance which is all so often - in these parlous theatrical times - the financial banker and sure fire money making success of a theatre's year.
Like Cricket, another venerated English institution, pantomime
defies an easy and logical description. Why do men dress
up as women and women with seemingly endless legs slap their
thighs and pretend to be men - usually without the slightest
glimmer of innuendo?
Vast tomes have been written on the history of pantomime.
It draws its origins from aspects of Commedia dell'arte,
French ballets-pantomimes - which were themselves
descended from a distant Roman tradition based on a dumb
show performed by a single masked dancer called Pantomimus
- and the 18th
century Harlequinade. It was to be transformed in the early
19th century by the great clown Grimaldi who
established many of its now established conventions.
It is traditionally a Christmas seasonal entertainment for
children with sketchy plots based loosely on traditional
fairy tales. Much embellishment with music, dancing and
comedy occurs - often in a style and with routines that
have been handed down over the years by generations of performers.
In the late 19th century it provided an excuse
for female Music Hall stars to titillate a morally repressed
audience by showing off their legs as well as their other
talents. As Variety progressively overtook Music Hall so
the stars of the day carried on the starring mantle in pantomime
needing the flimsiest of excuses to show of their special
talents. - It was not unknown for a Robinson Crusoe to be
washed ashore on a desert island after a fateful shipwreck
to utter the immortal words: "Here I am all alone,
I will play my xylophone."
The stories of Aladdin, Jack & The Beanstalk, Dick Whittington,
Cinderella, Mother Goose, Robinson Crusoe, Red Riding Hood
and the rest continue to enthral and more often than not
provide the very young with a first, enduring experience
of live theatre.
Would that it may continue with quality, fun, clean shows
which have no deep message to convey other than that of
seasonal happiness hugely enhanced by the infectious laughter