Three years ago I attended my first panto, because a friend was in the cast. Like many, I had only a vague notion of what the sublime, long-standing, British tradition of the Christmas Panto was all about. The Christmas Panto is based on a fairy tale (perhaps nursery rhymes?) and amounts to a spoof. It does not involve Christmas per se, but enlists adults and children alike, in its goofy, giddy, marvelously ridiculous merriment, utterly consistent with the spontaneity and warmth of the season. Even the villain is embraced in the end. The audience is encouraged to talk back, engage in a singing contest (“boys” against the “girls”) boo the bad guys and alert characters when they miss something. “Look out behind you.” Some of the subtler pleasures include jokes that are obviously aimed at the grown-ups (“You told them to shove it where?” “Why, in the recycling bin.”) seeing the young folk thoroughly consumed in the narrative, and the gender defiance of “The Dame” and “Principal Boy”. The dame is a lusty, busty flirtatious gal who loves to come on to a guy in the front row. She is also a man in drag. By the same turn, principal boy is a young, essentially prepubescent actress. Mind you, pantos go back many, many years.
This year was Jackie Mellor-Guin’s The Sleeping Beauty. Emelda the Evil Fairy is angry when she is unwittingly snubbed at a posh affair, thrown in honor of the new Princess. She hexes the Princess, sending her into a deep sleep for a 100 years, till the smooch of a Handsome Young Prince, breaks the spell. Stealing the focus of this beloved story are Mrs. Broom (The Dame) and her son, Sleepy Pete, prone to nod off at random moments. Mrs. Broom loves to dither and gush, and keeps her son’s identity secret, to maintain her illusion of youth. That is to say: ingenues do not have grown children. Adding to the chaos and distraction are three rapping fairies: Fairy Nuff, Fairy Mary and Fairy Ethel. Kudoes to costume designer Tory Padden for the witty and fresh threads she has brought to this production.
Theatre Britain has staged a playful, bouncy, quirky celebration of fancy and nonsense, romance and retaliation, magic and shenanigans. There is something irresistible about the spirited recreation we are invited to for the length of the play, to lose ourselves in giddy absurdity and careless gusto. It only took one dose of this elixir to make me a believer. Perhaps it will work for you too.
Theatre Britain presents The Sleeping Beauty, playing November 26th-December 30th, 2016. Cox Playhouse: 1517 H Avenue, Plano, Texas 75074. 972-490-4202. www.theatre-britain.com