The History of Pantomime
Jamie Alexander Wilson
Magic Beans Productions
As November draws to a close, this can only mean one thing: it's panto time! Up and down the country plans are being put into practice as shows open daily, with some, such as the Lyric Hammersmith's Aladdin, having already been running for almost a week.
Attending a pantomime is a fundamental part of our Christmas traditions. For many children it will be their first experience of the theatre, but how do we learn what to do? Pantomime is a bit like church - everyone's expected to know what to say when, but if you don't have access to the shared hymn sheet you are left feeling isolated and excluded from the merriment.
Luckily for the panto-going generation of the future, Magic Beans Productions has been touring schools in Sevenoaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells for the past fortnight with a schedule more gruelling than the festive panto run itself! Three times a day they've been delighting audiences with their History of Pantomime - fifty minutes of panto fun encompassing the history, traditions, practices and set pieces we all love.
The show starts with actors Robert Pearce and Ant Payne introducing themselves and establishing the all important shared community of pantomime with plenty of "Hiya kids". They explain about pantomime's stock characters and inform the audience that they will transform into Mother Goose and Silly Billy before the pupils' very eyes. The students look on awestruck. This is the magic of theatre.
As Pearce and Payne apply their make-up, the school children get a whirlwind lesson in the history of pantomime; however Magic Beans Productions don't quite get an A+. The progenitor of today's panto Dame appeared considerably earlier than the Elizabethan era and although the Greeks did believe in the concept of the right: good/lucky, left: bad/unlucky binary, this was never applied to the stage in performance. There are a few other historical 'wobbles' relating to the origins of modern British pantomime and famous Clown Joseph Grimaldi's career, but these can be easily remedied for future productions and highlight the lack of accessible scholarly material on the genre for enthusiasts and companies to embrace and use as a point of reference.
Both Payne and Pearce are skilled pantomime performers and really come into their own once in character as Silly Billy and Mother Goose. Having worked together on numerous pantomimes in the past, their comedic interplay is a real lesson in the art of double-acts.
Payne's rapport with the children would make any panto Comic jealous; he has them eating out of the palm of his hands as they delight in his silly antics and crazy dancing. His set piece honouring the Music Hall flea act has children pounding the floor with laughter as they gaze on captivated by Freddy the Flea. The fact that they believe in the non-existent parasite is testament to his skill at summoning imaginations.
Other set pieces included in the show are The Echo Gag and The Ghost Gag. Pearce's rendition of the Cake Cooking Sequence as Mother Goose truly demonstrates his mastery at the craft of Daming as well-timed dough, eggs and flour go flying about the space. The children really believe in his Dame; the highest praise any practitioner of the role could receive, and he manages to successfully achieve that rare balance of campery and masculinity in equal measure.
During the performance Payne and Pearce are joined by their 'dresser' Katie who brings on props and helps out when necessary. The character of Katie is, of course, the control in amongst the madness. She exposes the mechanics of production and due to her exclusion from Pantoland, she becomes the butt of many a joke as Mother Goose and Silly Billy pin the blame on her when things go wrong.
All pantomimes teach important morals and The History of Pantomime is no exception. At each performance one of Kent's Police Officers steps in when yet more blame is placed on poor Katie and he or she reminds the children of the dangers of bullying and throwing things, such as eggs. The pupils respond surprisingly well and all agree that Mother Goose and Silly Billy should apologise for their behaviour demonstrating the power of theatre as an educational aid.
The History of Pantomime does a sterling job in not only keeping this glorious art form alive, but in captivating the pantomime audiences and practitioners of tomorrow. Pupils may leave the show hoarse from joining in, but they will most definitely want to see a pantomime and luckily for them Pearce and Payne can be seen as Mother Goose and Silly Billy at the Stag Theatre, Sevenoaks later this season. The tour is, of course, part of Mother Goose's marketing strategy, but why is that a bad thing when it brings so many so much joy? Magic Beans Productions should be commended on such an initiative. Unfortunately, not every child gets the opportunity to see a pantomime each year, but with The History of Pantomime Christmas comes early for all.
'The History of Pantomime' toured schools until 25th November 2011.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen