Yes it is!…No it isn’t…

Non-Brits will probably not be familiar with the peculiar British art form of panto (short for “pantomime”). In short, it’s a popular fairy-tale put on for children at Christmastime, but with lots of convention, slapstick and standup comedy, and the like. It you’re interested in learning more about it, go to this website and click on “History” and then on “Aladdin” to find out what I saw last night.

My friend Alex from Singapore is a gymnast. One feature of most pantomimes is a gymnastic routine leavened with some slapstick. As he was getting bored with his high-paying job arranging conferences, he quit and started work in panto (but will blossom into a fine actor at some point). His first panto was “Aladdin”, and he asked me to come see it to support him.

Besides the gymnasts, there are several other characters that are stock characters. There’s the Widow Twankey, who is part of the genre of “Panto Dames”. These are always played by men in a very camp manner. Think of Mrs. Slocombe and her pussy being played by a man and you’ve got it. There’s the compere, whose name in Aladdin is “Wishy-Washy” (as he is Widow Twankey’s son and she’s a laundress) and who does a bit of stand-up (surprisingly topical) as well as some slapstick. There’s the villain, there’s a genie (in Aladdin, anyway), there’s a Princess, and lots of other supporting cast members.

Panto is really something for children and bored parents. People who were not born or raised here don’t often connect with the conventions. There is a lot of audience participation (the villain shouting “Yes it is!” and the auudience yelling back “Oh no it isn’t!”, or shouting to the Widow Twankey “It’s behind you!” when someone is creeping up on him…er…her.) But I was rather dismayed when the computer booking turned up a seat in the front row. That’s just looking to be picked on by the actors.

A lot of the humour is toilet humour (bound to appeal to the 9-12 year old set), but some is fairly sophisticated. Anyway, I was sitting in the front row prepared to sit through this just as a cultural experience that would help me to understand what it is to be British. The compere’s first stand-up routine started off with a silly joke about Americans. He prefaced it with “Any Americans in the audience?” and I raised my hand but not very high. He didn’t see me. The joke went past, and he then wandered to my side of the stage, stage left. He was making a joke about ugliness, and he looked around (they can only see the first few rows from the stage) and pointed at me and said, “Yes, ugly, kind of like you.” I shot back straight away, “And I’m American too!” Of course he corpsed and when he’d recovered asked me why I hadn’t raised my hand. I said that I had–he just hadn’t seen it. He continued and I thought: “Good–he’s not going to bother me again.”

After the intermission, Alex’s partner and another friend joined me in the front row. The compere’s second turn came around, and he was with the Empress on stage talking about how lovers talk to each other. He was trying to teach her about it. So he went up to the edge of stage right and said some stuff to a girl over there, who giggled predictably. Then he said to the Empress, leading her stage left: “Now you try!” and he looked at me and pointed–“Talk to him.” So the Empress bent over and said to me: “You want some honey, honey? You want some sugar, sugar?”

At that moment I knew how Thomas Huxley felt when Soapy Sam Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, asked him (in a public debate in re evolution) whether he was descended from a monkey on his grandmother’s side or his grandfather’s side. Huxley turned to a friend and said, “God hath given him over into my hands.” and demolished Wilberforce’s arguments.

I looked her straight in the eye and said, as loud as I could, “I’m a diabetic.”

Instant “pantomonium”. They both broke up in laughter (as did the audience) and couldn’t go on for a few moments. Once they resumed, every couple of lines he’d point to me and say, “He’s a diabetic, you know.”

After the show we went backstage to collect Alex for the train back to London and met the compere and the actress playing the Empress. They were jolly good sports about it too.

I suppose I’ll have to go and see Alex in panto forever now…but I’ll try to sit in the back rows.

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