After more than five years in England, I was pretty sure I had exhausted the repertoire of traditional British experiences. I’ve attended the grand sporting triumvirate of Ascot, Henley and Wimbledon. I’ve wanged-the-wellie at a village fête. I’ve even eaten haggis to celebrate a Scottish poet I’ve never read. But until last Saturday night, I had never attended a panto.
British pantomime is a Christmas theatrical tradition that seems to follow the format of fairytale — Cinderella in our case — with a twist. The purpose of these twists, like the walk-on role of the gorilla, seem to be entirely to encourage audience participation; the form is to shout “it’s behind you,” when said gorilla appears. You can also sing along to the updated musical numbers. We had a lot of Take That, but the best was the rendition of Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming. Then there is Buttons, the narrator/bumbling suitor of Cinders, who encourages participation from the moms, dads, and kids in attendance. Apparently Buttons wasn’t expecting our group of six, childless adults in the second row. I decided to help out the dads, who seemed the quietest of the constituencies.
Then of course there was the drag. The ugly stepsisters were expected. What wasn’t expected was that Prince Charming and his page would be played by women, which meant the central romance of the story was girl-on-girl. Suddenly the origins of stereotypical British sexual confusion became clear; this is, after all, the entertainment Britons are weaned on. I did seem to be the only one in the audience shocked by it though. The under-eights squealed with delight throughout.