In a year of theatrical catastrophes, English pantomime looked to be one more. Big-heart, big-joke, big-budget extravaganzas, these shows depend on live audiences like few others. Staged at Christmastime and performed throughout much of the Anglophone world, pantos take classic fairy tales and zhuzh them up with famous guest stars, topical humor and song parodies.
A man usually plays a bawdy female character, known as the dame. A young woman plays the “principal boy.” Audiences know to boo, cheer or shout “It’s behind you!” Actors throw boiled sweets and Wagon Wheel biscuits to the crowd. Can you do all that over Zoom?
But a form popular for at least a couple of centuries knows a thing or two about changing with the times. Even as parts of England and Scotland returned to lockdown, many companies still found ways to make pantomimes available internationally — via Zoom, livestream or prerecorded video. Panto has never yet made significant inroads into the United States, despite a 19-year-old Ariana Grande once starring as Snow White. So if you’re looking for some Covid silver lining, take this bit of tinsel.
Last week, the theater critics Elisabeth Vincentelli and Alexis Soloski saw eight pantomimes, which is arguably too many, and then met remotely to discuss toilet humor, pop-song rewrites and whether there is in fact nothing like a dame. These are edited excerpts from their conversation.
ALEXIS SOLOSKI I had wanted to see pantomime for so long, probably because actors throw candy at the audience. I used to wonder why panto had never caught on here. After this week, I have ideas! Or maybe we just overdosed?
VINCENTELLI I loved it all, from the really budget shows to the fancy ones. I’ll take panto over saccharine American-style Christmas anytime, and certainly over “A Christmas Carol.”
SOLOSKI Fighting words! Me, I felt like an ethnographer studying a foreign culture’s strange ceremonies. Panto has its origins in commedia dell’arte, royal masque and the peculiarities of Victorian theater licensing. Somehow this has gifted us men in fright drag who pretend to fart while a chorus sings Rihanna.
VINCENTELLI You say that like it’s a bad thing. I relish juxtapositions of high- and lowbrow sensibilities, though admittedly in this case it’s low and low. I can’t recall ever hearing as many fart jokes, and I laughed at all of them.
SOLOSKI And so many sex jokes. These are family shows! Are English children big into bawdry?
VINCENTELLI It’s the “Simpsons” method: Some jokes fly over the children’s heads to reach the parents’. I was stunned when Dame Sigrid Smorgasbord (Steve Simmonds) in the New Wolsey Theater’s “The Snow Queen” said “My first husband was hung like a horse — a seahorse.”
SOLOSKI That was extremely funny. I don’t think we can repeat her Roger Moore joke.
VINCENTELLI We’ll save that for the R-rated version of this article, behind a double pay wall. I’m now a huge fan of Simmonds, whose performance was half Taylor Mac and half Nathan Lane. I find panto ingredients theatrically effective: drag, disrupted pop songs, cheeky puns, topical references. The Perth Theater’s “Oh Yes We Are!” included a riff on “The 12 Days of Christmas” with lines like “fiiiiiive toilet rolls.”
SOLOSKI I tried to do the call and response with that one. They kept me muted. We both adored “The Snow Queen.” Aside from some old-fashioned stage magic (trap door entrances!), why did that one work so well?
VINCENTELLI It was filmed in front of a live (distanced) audience. Panto relies heavily on audience participation and the actors clearly feed on it. Mugging and chewing the scenery is a lost art, except in pantomime. Another favorite was the National Theater’s “Dick Whittington,” where Dickie Beau’s dame followed a Sondheim reference with a rewrite of Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now.”
SOLOSKI That bit from “Losing My Mind” — my personal 2020 theme song — was genius. And when the couple hugged through a plastic sheet and everyone sang “We Found Love,” I got a little misty. It’s been such a catastrophe of a year — theatrically, otherwise — and this company managed to create this big, silly, lovely show, only to see it close as London went back into lockdown.
VINCENTELLI I actually teared up several times watching all those shows.
SOLOSKI All of them? Even “Cinderella Live”?
VINCENTELLI Because they really are about the communing. There was always a moment when they made me miss multigenerational togetherness so much. And the imperfections of live performance: I really felt for the actors who sounded distinctly winded during a big number.
SOLOSKI My throat went lumpy during the opening of Belgrade Theater’s “Jack and the Beanstalk,” when two actors stare out an empty house and wonder how to go on. Still, some shows handled Covid-era limitations superbly. Like the “Jack and the Beanstalk” staged in Peter Duncan’s colossal backyard. Other shows, like the National Theater of Scotland’s “Rapunzel,” felt as flat as a sat-on mince pie.
VINCENTELLI I loved the costumes — Rosey Posey looked out of a psychedelic “Ascot Gavotte” — but being a succession of monologues didn’t help. If the actors don’t get that lifeline from the audience or each other, there’s little for them to hang on to in this specific format. They’re not doing Beckett monologues.
SOLOSKI What did you make of the cross-casting? Like you, I loved Simmonds and Beau, who delivered rich, ripe, generous performances. And Beau ran around in a dress covered in baked beans and black pudding. Legendary. But other dames felt tired to me, empty accumulations of stereotype.
VINCENTELLI Panto has been said to perpetuate stereotypes, but I didn’t feel any of the shows we watched reflected that. It’s an ancient, some may say rickety, art form and it can bend to be extremely inclusive. “The Fairytale Revolution,” an all-female take on “Peter Pan,” had a feminist slant while keeping the genre’s building blocks. I enjoyed its shambolic, riot grrrl attitude — very Mickey and Judy, or rather Judy and Judy.
SOLOSKI Their metatextual stuff probably made more sense if you are a panto aficionado. Which I clearly am not. But I admired their spunk. Surprise! Even feminist panto includes fart jokes.
VINCENTELLI And an anti-vaxxer one.
SOLOSKI And one about a character being so evil that she still follows J.K. Rowling on Twitter. Mostly I saw companies making the best of a really calamitous situation, lighting up the dark. I loved this line from “Rapunzel”: “This festive season might not be how we imagined it, but if the story of Rapunzel has taught us anything, it’s this: You could have been trapped in a tower for 15 years.”
VINCENTELLI Watching those shows I was either laughing uproariously at terrible puns or misting up watching the Zoom audiences. At times I felt as if I was witnessing the kind of attitude that carried the Brits through the Blitz.
SOLOSKI Keep Calm and Panto on? I like it. When things get back to what I will laughably call “normal” and in-person theater returns, would you keep watching livestream panto?
VINCENTELLI If it’s like “The Snow Queen” or “Dick Whittington,” absolutely. But the truth is, if I ever find myself in Britain over the holidays, I’d go see just about any of them and yell and clap and boo and have a grand time.
SOLOSKI Me too. As long as they throw me some candy.