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Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Panto, panto, pantomime!

(Title shamelessly adapted from Peeta as portrayed in How the Hunger Games Should Have Ended.)

Last Friday I had the privilege of accompanying my roommate and her ten-year-old daughter to a pantomime performance of Aladdin. After a delightful dinner out of pizza, we walked down to the Theatre Royal in Bury. We found our box in the upper circle and settled in to await the beginning of the show, marked by the arrival of its sinister villain,

This was my first experience with a pantomime. For that reason, I have nothing to compare it to (except my own, less than recent, experiences with other types of theatre). I’m glad I didn’t miss out! Pantomime is a distinctively British tradition of theatre which combines elements of fairy tale, particularly European and Arabian folklore, with musical theatre, comedy, and sexual innuendo. The male lead is usually portrayed by a young woman, and an older man plays an older woman—often the lead’s mother—as the "pantomime dame". Panto, as it is so lovingly abbreviated, also involves audience participation. Rather than sitting with rapt silence as Scrooge cowers from the Ghost of Christmas Past, we the audience are instead expected to shout, boo, hiss, and sing at all the appropriate moments. If there’s anything that the phrase "good fun" (but certainly not good, clean fun, mind you) applies to, panto might be it.

Those who know me in real life know that, by and large, I am somewhat reserved, especially in public places. However, there are exceptions to this; I have been known to cheer and jeer at baseball games, for example, and I tried to channel that particular Ben at the pantomime. Knowing that audience participation was a requirement, I resolved to go for it, because there was no point in spoiling the experience. This could very well be my only trip to a pantomime, and I wanted to get the entire experience. I’m glad I did this. Joining in the cheers, the boos, and the singing definitely adds to the experience. It pulls one into the story of the performance, as the actors and audience co-create this shared, fictional world of endless possibilities.

For this reason too, Aladdin was a serendipitous choice of story. It’s a story that, sadly, I’ve really only known through the Disney version. I enjoyed seeing the pantomime take on it, including the hilariously over-the-top Widow Twankey. The mixture of love story and battle of good versus evil, the romance between Aladdin and Jasmine and the magical machinations of Abu, everything comes together into a wonderfully satisfying story. I was impressed with the actors. They were very committed to their roles, enthusiastic in the fighting and dancing and singing. The actor playing Aladdin displayed some fancy acrobatic skills: at one point she was suspended in mid-air on nothing more than some diaphanous fabric—no wires, no harnesses—as Aladdin descended into the cave where he finds the lamp. All of the actors had great chemistry, playing off each other—and the audience—to create a very unique experience.

I don’t know if I’m doing a very good job describing this. Perhaps it suffices to say that, after coming out of that theatre, I could very happily have turned around and gone in to watch the show again. It was one of the highlights of the past few weeks. This month has been one of fond recollection of days past; in the weeks leading up to the Christmas holidays and my brief return to Canada, I find myself more prone to reminiscing about the high points of the past few years (probably because, sometimes, it seems like such high points are fewer and farther between lately). I hadn’t expected the pantomime to jolt me out of that spiral of self-reflection as much as it did. It was a big enough dose of fun and fervour to leave a lasting impression. Winter is coming, and we had best stock up on the happy memories to get us through the snowy (or, in England, mostly rainy) days.