It’s the silly season of slapstick humour, when damsels in distress are aplenty and it’s socially acceptable for grown men to wear a dress in public – all for the entertainment of a gleeful family audience. Yes, it’s pantomime season. Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is….(sorry, I couldn’tresist!)
Is there anything more British than a pantomime? It epitomises everything that is truly British and for that they should be celebrated. It has the regality of going to the theatre, the humour, the eccentricity, the audience participation, the unexpected twists and turns, the obvious twists and turns, the singing, the dancing, the orchestra and of course the Dame who steals the show!
They are one of the only shows that I can think of where the whole family can sit and watch something together with generations enjoying the boy (who usually does not have a bean to his name) defeating the villain (always my favourite character – every girl loves a bad boy!) to get the girl/princess/lovely maiden played by someone who generally smiles and sings sweetly for the majority of the show.
As a child my family took me to a panto every Boxing Day. It was a family tradition and we went every single year without fail to the Theatre Royal in Wakefield. My grandma would book the tickets months in advance and the whole family would go. Personally, I felt a little put out as a kid. I mean it was Boxing Day and I had not had the chance to play with my gifts from the day before. I would sit there dreaming of my Sylvanian Family tree house sat at home. However, when the performance started the tree house would soon be a distant memory – I was fascinated by the dancing and vowed to join a dance group the moment the curtain fell!
When I became a teenager I decided that I would not tow the family line anymore and the panto was one of the things that had to go! In my mind sitting next to my mum watching someone throw water at someone else and slap their thigh as they energetically jumped into dance was definitely not for the rebelling teenager! In fact, from that moment on I decided that the ‘he’s behind you’ routine was not for me – ever again!
For 14 years I managed to avoid the slapstick scenes – that is until I met my other half. You see, when you choose to be with someone else you have to accept their family – and that means accepting their family traditions. And guess what? Yes, you guessed it – they go every year to the panto – aaarrrggghhh!
Since my mother-in-law has been a young girl of just 8 years old she has been to the York Theatre Royal for the annual panto and as she claimed her bus pass this year, you can certainly say that it’s rather an ingrained tradition – and the whole family attends. No getting out of this then!
So, after parking the car at a York hotel, the moment arrives – I am sat there in the front row of the dress circle (which my mother-in-law queued for hours for in the rain to secure as these are the best seats in the house!) and my youth comes flooding back to me (minus the tree house). The curtain goes up and out come the singing and dancing girls and boys twirling around with pirouettes and jazz hands! I was back to being in awe.
For 35 years Berwick Kaler has been not only the star of the show but also the writer and director of the performance and it is easy to see why he has such loyal fans who return year after year. The story is based on the usual nursery rhyme, folk tale or children’s story, but that’s about it – literally anything goes! But isn’t this what should be celebrated about them – the unexpected shock that gains the laughter and makes you want to go back for more?
And so, on 11th January I attended my third annual performance with the family. This year was Jack and the beanstalk, but to be honest the only resemblance to the actual story was that there was someone called Jack, a beanstalk and some beans. Of course we still had the panto cow and the Dame, Damsel, comic lead, hero and villain (played by David Leonard who is my favourite). However, we also had aliens invading the land of Jack, the villain had a large, squeaky comedy bottom and there were extra characters – Jedward, Cheryl Cole, Boy George and John Lennon. Pure genius!
I think I have now gone full circle – I loved it, I hated it and now I love it all over again! Where else would I be witness to a 60 year old man dressed as a walnut whip and Lady Gaga all in one show? I will certainly be encouraging my mother-in-law to queue again this year!