“He’s right behind you,” my friend writes via message.
“No,” I type back furiously. “Don’t tell me anything else. I need to be surprised.”
And, thus begins my first British panto experience.
If you asked me a month ago about this holiday cultural phenomenon, I would have stared blankly at you and then imagined that “panto” was mimes, you know, pantomiming.
Let me say this: it most certainly is not.
What is pantomime?
According to the Basel English Pantomime Group, this particular form of theater is likely to date back to the Middle Ages. A mix of Italian “Commedia dell’ Arte and British music hall, the result is this off-beat child.
Performed during the Christmas season in the UK, today panto is a traditional British experience to be had when the temps drop. Held in various performance halls — from the posh ones in London to small community centers — these productions are all based (loosely) on children’s stories or fairy tales.
A few things set panto apart from other theater experiences. Typically, the cast features men playing women, and women playing men (not the case largely for my show). There is always a Dame, the lead male part. In addition, panto features “goodies” and “baddies” (i.e. The Fairy Godmother and the Evil Queen), the lead male (often played by a female), the principal female (often played a male), the “ugly sisters” (again, males), a chorus, an animal, scenes taking place at the lip of the stage during set transitions, and — the most important — audience participation.
My panto experience
Basically unaware of what I am in for, I brave the London cold (thanks, Thailand jungle blood) and book it from Imperial Wharf to Wimbledon. There, just down the road from the District Line, I see the New Wimbledon Theatre, sign glowing against the black of the night sky.
“What show are you going to see?” A friend texts me.
“Panto,” I respond. Because that is all I know. And, isn’t panto simply Panto?
I scour the posters hanging outside the landmark theatre. None of them fit my image of panto. No mimes. No all black. No faces painted. There’s a poster of Cinderella, and a line of bundled up children hand-in-hand with their parents traipse into the warmth of the theatre.
Could it be? Cinderella? My American mind is utterly confused since panto and Cinderella make no sense.
“We’re seeing ‘Cinderella,'” Vicky, who decided I needed to experience this event well before I even arrived to London, informs me before we head inside. “I hope you’re ok with heights, because we’re all the way on the top.”
We climb hundreds of ancient stairs before we come to the roof of the theatre, a generous balcony looking straight down to the stage.
Armed with Maltesers, a delicious box of chocolate-dipped honeycomb (also, I’m told, very British), we sit high above the New Wimbledon Theatre.
Giddy with excitement, the show begins.
This isn’t your Disney version of Cinderella.
Not. At. All.
The show begins with Cinderella and chorus breaking out into Pharrell’s “Happy.”
“What is this?” I laugh, turning to Vicky.
“It’s panto,” she responds, smiling.
The show, which is a loose version of the original, is about Cinderella finding her prince. But then there is Buttons, played by British comedian Tim Vine; evil step-sisters Mel B. and Cheryl (dig the British X Factor pop culture reference) played by father/son duo Matthew Kelly and Matthew Rixon; the Prince’s assistant, Dandini, Wayne Sleep; and Fairy Godmother, of American Dallas TV show fame, Linda Gray.
Somewhere along the way, we learn Cinderella’s father, bled dry by the shopping habits of the step-sisters, has to lose his petrol business, and then there is a forest dance with flamenco ball room dancers, the Prince and his assistant switching places, meeting Cinderella, the Fairy Godmother intervention, complete with “Let it Go” from Frozen, the ball, 3-d ghosts (which brings into play the quintessential “he’s right behind you,” “no, he’s not” and some singing of the Ghostbusters theme song), the fitting of the glass slipper, breaking out into “Sweet Home Alabama,” some stand-up comedy performed on unsuspecting kids from the audience and then the final scene which closes with One Direction’s “Best Song Ever.”
It’s like children hung out with really stoned comedians and created this off-beat, adult-friendly version of a fairytale gone awry.
And, I loved every moment of it. From start to finish, I sat there, leaning forward, enthralled in this magical world of delight and childlike fantasy on crack.
At the end of the play, I turn to Vicky, “I wish panto was year-round.”
Like what you see? This is a part of a look at experiencing life as an expat in London and all of the quintessentially British moments and charm you can experience on your visit to Great Britain. For more, be sure to follow #dtravelsbritain.