Pantomimes are a traditional style of musical theatre that is usually performed over the Christmas season. There are a host of fairytale style stories and traditions that are associated with pantomimes and they are generally seen as a fun family day out during the festive season.
Origin and history
Pantomimes were originally an Ancient Greek style of play based around imitation and musical performance, first coming to the UK as a diversion between opera pieces. The Restoration saw pantomimes become plays in their own right and their popularity developed as Harlequin was introduced to the genre in the early 1700s by John Rich. Augustus Harris, who was manager of the Drury Lane theatre in the 1870s, is generally considered the father of the modern pantomime. Drama schools will often stage a Christmas pantomime over the festive season or lend students for chorus roles in local theatres. Many amateur dramatics societies will also put pantomimes on in the local village hall; all great experience for anyone wanting to go onto the stage.
Great for kids
Pantomimes are based on traditional children’s stories, usually with little or no reference to Christmas, which makes them great for kids' drama classes since the children already know the format and the stories. Cinderella, Aladdin, Dick Whittington and Jack and the Beanstalk are some of the most common tales, with other Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers stories sometimes used as well. Slapstick comedy, mistaken identity and general chaos are all involved in a traditional pantomime; an evil ‘baddie’ who is eventually overthrown by the hero, allowing everyone else to live happily ever after, is practically mandatory.
The essential elements
The Christmas pantomime is steeped in tradition; the principal boy (leading male character) is played by a woman with form fitting clothes that make her gender obvious to the audience and the pantomime dame is generally played by a man in drag. Double entendres are uttered regularly, created from even the most innocent of phrases and the audience participate in games and popular phrases such as ‘He’s behind you!’ and ‘Oh no, it isn’t!’ The pantomime horse (or cow) is played by two actors, one as the back legs and one as the front and head. There is also a chorus of singers and dancers who usually appear in many scenes as villagers, pirates or courtiers and perform song and dance acts. These conventions are not set in stone, but the audience will expect to see at least some of the above if they go to a pantomime.
Acting in a pantomime is a lot of fun and many theatres take on extra chorus parts for the festive show, which is a great way to get experience even for those that are just helping backstage. Lots of famous actors have appeared in pantomimes and competing shows use the star as an advertising point to draw audiences into their theatres. For many families a trip to the pantomime is an integral part of the festive season and Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without one.