A pantomime—or panto, as it’s commonly known in the UK—must be experienced rather than described. It’s equal parts beauty and bawdry, seasoned with large dollops of music, topical humor, sight gags and fart jokes. It’s the closest thing to a vaudeville performance you’ll find these days. The narrator is usually a man in drag, contrasting greatly with the fair stars of the production.
Going to a panto is a holiday tradition in the UK, much like we’d go to see a production of “A Christmas Carol.” On our trips to Europe during American Thanksgiving, we had noticed adverts for pantos on buses and in train stations in the cities we were visiting. One year, the star was John Barrowman, who many sci-fi and fantasy fans know from his portrayal of Capt. Jack Harkness in “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood.” Although some of the actors can be from the B list, the narrator usually is the real star.
On our first bus trip to the city centre, I saw an advertisement for “Cinderella” at the Grand Opera House, a venue that truly lives up to its name. The production extended well past Christmas, so I figured there wouldn’t be a more appropriate time to experience this UK tradition.
Trying to get tickets, however, was a challenge—even three weeks after Christmas. This was closing week, and many of the performances were sold out. The performance we attended, a Friday afternoon matinee, was full except for the neck-turning, slightly obscured tickets we managed to purchase.
For the Grand Opera House production of “Cinderella,” take a well-known story, mix in a handsome prince and a fresh-faced lead actress. Throw in a cross-dressing fairy godmother with half-moon disco balls on her dress where her breasts would be and Princess Leia bun hair with another disco ball on top. Top that with generous amounts of slapstick, familiar tunes with new words and loads of audience participation (the louder the better), and you get some idea of a panto.
The fairy godmother, May McFettridge, embodies the spirit of the panto at the Grand Opera House. She’s been starring in pantos here for more than a quarter century, honored in 2014 with a bust permanently installed in the theatre opposite that of opera house architect Frank Matcham.
The jokes flew fast and thick, poking fun at everything from the current political climate to Donald Trump. Talking about her origins early on, the fairy godmother says she “wakes up every morning where everyone hugs and kisses—Stormont,” a reference to the current political climate where the power-sharing agreement is in jeopardy.
Several jokes were aimed at Gareth Gates, who played Prince Charming. He was a runner up to Will Young in the UK’s “Pop Idol,” then lost out to him again for best-selling song of the year.
In all the raucous action, you could have missed the Grand Opera House Dancers and future stars who gyrated, pranced and tried to keep pace. But you couldn’t have missed the 10 school groups who packed the 1,100-seat venue. Not only did the fairy godmother call out each group, he also brought four pre-teens up on stage for some alliterative fun, repeating variations of “One smart fellow, he felt smart.” Say this out loud to yourself a couple of times, and you’ll get where the gag is going.
The first girl, a knock-kneed 8-year-old with long straight hair that kept getting into her eyes, failed miserably, substituting “fart” for “smart” each time, much to the crowd’s delight. Another boy started to say the “f” word, before stopping himself and repeating the phrase correctly.
If you’re looking for high theater, a panto will never be your thing. But if you want to experience a beloved holiday tradition like the natives do, a panto definitely is worth a look.