The cast of a 2017 production of Sleeping Beauty.Twitter/@Robert_Hazle

Pantomime is crude and artless; it is a theatre for children, and any actor dabbling in it is ringing the death knell for their own career. Now, this sort of sentence – the one preceding this, I mean – is the very sort of sentiment which seems to be prevalent about pantomime. It’s a form which has been maintained as a sort of indulgence; there’s a hearty enjoyment of anachronism in its popularity, just like the Punch and Judy shows that can still be found at the seaside. The pantomimes which are enjoyed by adults – and done so without a sense of guilt – often seem to be a cleaned up version, in which the form has been codified into something which lacks its spirit entirely.

Why do I speak of pantomime, you ask? I’ll tell you why. It’s because I myself have performed in proper, stupid, messy pantomimes, and have enjoyed them very much. I donned a stupid costume, ran around the stage squawking and screeching like a wretched chicken-human hybrid, and did indeed drag members of the audience onstage and interrogate them like some nightmarish Les Dennis.

“In pantomime, the line between audience and stage falls apart entirely.”

In pantomime, the line between audience and stage falls apart entirely, so that the actor is forced to outwit the audience, to rise above them while remaining equal with them. Character is thin and insubstantial. It’s a loose shift at best, which is ready to be dropped whenever necessary. It is in these moments, when the character melts away, and one drunken person from the crowd tosses out a comment, that a pantomime stands or falls. You either beat back the comment quickly, or falter... It comes close to the discipline of a stand-up responding to hecklers, except, here, the heckling is encouraged. Rather than being an obstacle lurking in wait to be efficiently overcome, it’s part and parcel of the entertainment. If the crowd isn’t shouting, engaging and getting involved, then it’s a bad crowd. Of course, there are differences in the types of interruptions between a matinee and an evening crowd. That, perhaps, goes without saying. But in either case, the crowd should be boisterous, should shout out, should interrupt, and we should engage with them in a way that furnishes something new out of that interruption. My favourite moments in the few pantomimes of my local theatre group – the Lovelace Theatre Group of Hucknall, to give it a much-needed shout out – were those in which the façade of the prince, the witch, or what have you, melted away completely. It is in these moments that a wonderfully social theatre is born.

“Pantomime exploits a relationship between performer and audience that only theatre can provide.”

These interactive moments are what make theatre special for me. Theatre offers a real, live engagement with a space in a way which cinema never can. Now, it’s probably worth mentioning at this point that I was reared on film, not theatre. After all, it was always much cheaper to go and see a film in Nottingham than it was a play, and the variety of film on offer at the Broadway cinema beat that of any theatre hands down. The thriving theatre scene of London was – and in many ways still is – a misty dream world which I could only get occasional snatches of, just as a fitful sleeper’s dreams are like fine thread which rarely poke through the dull fabric of his night. The interaction which is possible in a theatrical space has a novelty for me, and is one of the things that makes it so exciting. If I wanted to just sit in the dark, immobile and silent, then why not go to a cinema? I don’t want to be flippant; there is obviously more that distinguishes theatre from cinema than this. But certainly, pantomime exploits a relationship between performer and audience that only theatre can provide – especially in those moments when the lights are brought up on the audience, and the Dame goes out amongst them, leaving giggles and red faces in his strutting wake.


Mountain View

High school theatre: Endless renditions of Bugsy Malone, or something more?

The pantomime is a perfect example of the vitality of this carnivalesque performance tradition. This interaction between performer and audience is not something novel; it stretches back to the communal miracle plays, and is something deeply rooted in our theatrical tradition. It seems strange to me that pantomime is kept down as a crude and vulgar art form, while we keep Shakespeare’s comedies enshrined beyond the reach of the madding crowd. However, these plays would have once had the same sort of open relationship which we see now in a pantomime. They are carnivals, and they deserve to be played as such. In fact, one of Shakespeare’s most famous fools, Robert Armin, cut his teeth on the very sort of verbal slinging which is so crucial to the repartee of true pantomime. No matter how many times people try to clean it up, polish it and script it, the old habits creep back in. If a pantomime doesn’t run overtime, then it was no pantomime worth viewing in my book. These moments of indulgence are, in fact, the very kernel of the tradition.

I hate to drag this old chestnut in, but it is especially in the current moment that we see how valuable a form such as pantomime is. To have a Dame whirling around in the midst of a garrulous, guffawing crowd, to hear words flying and see custard pies fly too, shows us how important these moments of collective release can be. After all, we love to see a good performance, but a really great performance is one in which we can participate as well. When we can, at long last, gather again in this way, without worrying about anything beyond the price of the drink or the discomfort of the chair, I’m sure we will relish those flying custard pies more than ever before.