Christmas Pantos are a HUGE form of holiday entertainment in Great Britain and throughout the UK - the closest thing we have here in Boston would probably be the Christmas Revels ... and most places in America would have the Nutcracker or the Rockettes, but the Pantos have them beat all hollow.
Basically a spoof of a famous tale (more often than not a fairy tale or children's story), the Panto has an established tradition of music, farce, sing-along and audience participation. Just as we have performers in America, for example, who have played Scrooge in local theatrical productions of A CHRISTMAS CAROL for years on end, so do the Pantos, with some folks having made their careers as Panto performers - in recent years, the trend has been to have a celebrity join in on the fun. One of the most popular (by far) has been John Barrowman, aka "Captain Jack Harkness" from the BBC series TORCHWOOD. John is a song-and-dance man from early on in his career, so he has been an excellent fit for the Pantos, having very successful runs in ALADDIN and ROBIN HOOD (perhaps TOO successful, as this news article relates: http://www.thescottishsun.co.uk/scotsol/homepage/news/3938162/John-Barrowman-in-terror-over-stalker.html )
Pantos are the broadest form of farce and have a number of conventions (which generations of Panto-goers would know by heart) - for the uninitiated, here are the more common ones (courtesy of Wikipedia):
- "The leading male juvenile character (the principal boy) - is traditionally played by a young woman, usually in tight-fitting male garments (such as breeches) that make her female charms evident.
- An older woman (the pantomime dame - often the hero's mother) is usually played by a man in drag.
- Risqué double entendre, often wringing innuendo out of perfectly innocent phrases. This is, in theory, over the heads of the children in the audience.
- Audience participation, including calls of "He's behind you!" (or "Look behind you!"), and "Oh, yes it is!" and "Oh, no it isn't!" The audience is always encouraged to boo the villain and "awwwww" the poor victims, such as the rejected dame, who usually fancies the prince.
- Music may be original but is more likely to combine well-known tunes with re-written lyrics. At least one "audience participation" song is traditional: one half of the audience may be challenged to sing 'their' chorus louder than the other half.
- The animal, played by an actor in 'animal skin' or animal costume. It is often a pantomime horse or cow, played by two actors in a single costume, one as the head and front legs, the other as the body and back legs.
- The good fairy enters from stage right (from the audience's point of view this is on the left) and the villain enters from stage left (right from the point of view of the audience). This convention goes back to the medieval mystery plays, where the right side of the stage symbolised Heaven and the left side symbolised Hell.
- Sometimes the story villain will squirt members of the audience with water guns or pretend to throw a bucket of 'water' at the audience that is actually full of streamers.
- A slapstick comedy routine may be performed, often a decorating or baking scene, with humour based on throwing messy substances. Until the 20th century, British pantomimes often concluded with a harlequinade, a free-standing entertainment of slapstick. Nowadays the slapstick is more or less incorporated into the main body of the show.
- In the 19th century, until the 1880s, pantomimes typically included a transformation scene in which a Fairy Queen magically transformed the pantomime characters into the characters of the harlequinade, who then performed the harlequinade.
- The Chorus, who can be considered extras on-stage, and often appear in multiple scenes (but as different characters) and who perform a variety of songs and dances throughout the show. Due to their multiple roles they may have as much stage-time as the lead characters themselves."
To get a feel for these shows, go to YouTube and type in 'Chirstmas Panto' - there's lot of examples for you to see - here are a few: first, a promotional video for a touring version of ROBIN HOOD: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jH8pW3E89m8&feature=related
Then there's this clip-fest of the John Barrowman version of RH - you might want to watch this one with the sound OFF, unless you're a fan of High School Musical!
If you are ever in England during the holidays and get the chance, attend a Christmas Panto --- it's a experience you won't soon forget - "Oh, yes, you will!" "Oh, no, you won't!" :)