I’ll admit it – until yesterday I was officially a Pantomime virgin. As a Belgian who’s lived in the UK for a little over a year, I’ve been exposed to a few unusual Christmas traditions already: crackers, weird paper hats and massive roast dinners – though I’m not complaining about the roasts. The closest I’d come to a Christmas play is an annual show about a man and his best friend – a talking stuffed dog. I mean, it’s great, but it’s definitely nothing like a Pantomime.
I had no idea what to expect before going in to Leicester’s Little Theatre to see their version of Sleeping Beauty, so I decided to do my research. The ever thrustworthy Wikipedia told me this:
“Modern pantomime includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable or folk tale. It is a participatory form of theatre, in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.”
While that tells you a lot, It still doesn’t communicate what a pantomime really entails. I feared that being in my mid twenties would make me a bit too old, and there was even a slight fear that I’d feel like the parents at that talking dog thing in Belgium – wondering why they have put themselves through the horror of watching a man pretend to talk to an inanimate object. Oh boy, was I wrong. This isn’t just two hours of singing songs to entertain children, and at moments it seems as if the parents are more in to it than the kids, which I blame mainly on John Bale’s performance as Dame Petunia Petal – with costume changes as impressive as her jokes.
I had a massive smile on my face before the show had even started because of the wonderful decor, and once underway it was a rollercoaster of feelings. From chills in the first scenes when Rose Bale’s version of the good fairy, Briar Rose, introduces the audience to the story, to laughing out loud when James May and Isaac Hart’s Royal heralds Bellow and Shout show off with gags that entertain both the young and old. In the words of Dame Petunia Petal, “Everything was great, everything was grand”.
Audience participation is the order of the day throughout – either singing along with songs, or shouting at the actors that a ghost is behind them (yes, it was!), with parents often leading the way and showing their kids the rules of this unusual tradition. That is until the water guns come out and the same parents hide behind their bags, coats or hands, while the kids try to get hit by as much water as possible. Water fights in mid-December, how often are you allowed to have those?!
It feels as though different characters are relatable to different audience demographics. Where Princess Aurora (Megan Slater), Prince Valliant (Simon Butler), King Sat-upon the Seventh (Rob Rayner) and The Good Fairy are probably favourites for a lot of the kids thanks to the fairy tale aspect, Dame Petunia Petal the Party Planner and The Evil Fairy Carabosse (Siobhan Ball) are perhaps more popular with the part of the audience over… let’s say, 14 years old. The heralds seem to be loved by everyone. Blame it on their slapstick.
So checking my Wikipedia Pantomime list: songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, gender-crossing actors, topical humour and a fairy tale. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.
I am no longer a pantomime virgin, and I will say this: either I’m still very much a kid, or that doesn’t matter. It was rad.
Is there an unspoken rule about not being allowed to see more than one panto per christmas season? If not, you’ll know where to find me every weekend until the season is over – Otherwise I’m counting down the days until the Little Theatre does Dick Whittington in 2017.
Sleeping Beauty runs at the Little Theatre until the 8th January.