Pantomime: oh, so British - and, oh, so funny

I can't remember when I last went to a pantomime. It's an almost uniquely British Christmas theatrical tradition with sparkling scene changes, a Principal Boy (a leggy girl), a Dame (a rough male comic), Prince Charming, fairy godmothers, babes-in-the-woods, and Aladdin's lamp. It's also known for its audience participation, clowning, sentimentality, topical jokes, endless changes of costume, and final transformation of everyone and everything into an over-the-top confection of scintillating happy-endingness.

Years back, television was expected to end this traditional family entertainment forever, if ordinary common sense didn't get there first. Yet here we are in 2005 and another panto season is halfway through.

Actually, the first sentence of this essay is only partly true. I do remember when I last went to half a pantomime. It was in Guildford, a southern English town. It was in the 1970s, and I was with my mother. Both of us were, by then, no longer children by a long chalk.

It was a strange occasion. Even now I can't understand how it happened. She had asked if I'd like to go to a play by Somerset Maugham when I came to visit her. Perhaps it was "The Constant Wife," and I supposed it would be an engaging drawing room comedy-drama, elegantly upper middle class, wittily written, safe, and touching. It wouldn't be Pinter (too menacing and enigmatic for mothers) or Shakespeare (too wordy and intellectual for mothers), and it was unlikely to have rude words in it.

We arrived at the matinee a bit early and as we sat waiting, I was puzzled by increasing numbers of children taking up seats on all sides, clutching bags of sweets and bubbling with anticipation. Could Maugham be undergoing some sort of a reassessment, his previously unsuspected child-appeal surfacing?

I don't know why we hadn't purchased a program. If we had, the major thunderbolt of realization that landed cataclysmically upon us when the curtain rose for Act I would have been mitigated.

The brightly lit scene confronting us presented a large foreground hull of a pirate ship with flags, rigging, crow's-nest, scuppers, and all, swarming with a vividly overcolorful chorus of eye-patched pirates in stripy vests and bell-bottoms, and a disproportionate number of pretty 18th- century wenches. They were all belting out a lyric of irrepressible exuberance and remarkable forgettableness concerning life "on the ocean wave."

Amazingly it took a few stunned minutes before mother and son exchanged blank, flabbergasted looks. No, this was not Somerset Maugham. It was "Sinbad the Sailor" - the season's pantomime.

We managed to last politely until the first interval, and then we left. I didn't know, until recent research into the pantomime phenomenon revealed it, that we were unwittingly echoing one of the practices of audiences in the early days of pantomime (in the 18th century). Audiences were sometimes given the first half free, and then paid only when they wanted to stay.

In an interview the other day, Susan Hampshire (who played Molly in "Monarch of the Glen") pointed out that in Britain pantomimes are frequently the first encounter people have with live theater. So the quality of pantomimes is significant for the survival of theatergoing. She talked about smut being expunged. She may not have realized that this was talked about in the 1890s. She advocated the innocent fairy story, the Mother Goose nature of pantos aimed at small children.

But a degree of broad street humor is a longstanding ingredient of pantomime, and I suspect it goes over the head of most 5- and 6-year-olds. Outrageousness, anyway, should not be outlawed; pantomime - as a midwinter antidote to cold, dark nights - has deeply ebullient roots in ancient japes and jollities. Lords of misrule, mummers, the ruder slapstickeries of commedia dell' arte and Roman burlesque are all precursors of modern pantomime.

I haven't seen the version of "Aladdin" running for a second year (it was a sellout in the 2004-05 season) at London's Old Vic. But this home of serious theater has no qualms about descending to pantomimic regions of good entertainment, and "Aladdin" stars one of the great, classic actors of our time.

Sir Ian McKellen might be better known as Gandalf (in "Lord of the Rings"), but his dame, Widow Twankey, is by all accounts a brilliant and extravagant bit of glorious nonsense. Outrageous might be an understatement. But on his website and in TV interviews, he is massively enthusiastic about this stab at bringing a bit of "class" to the genre. A bit of low-class, that is.

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