WENDY ELLIOTT: 'Panto' tradition continues in Wolfville

Wendy Elliott
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Just as mummering is largely unheard of in the Maritimes, Christmas pantomimes are also rare. However, across the pond, this month in London, England, there are 19 different “pantos” lined up.

Not only that, but a recent trove of 60-year-old photos has been in the news because they chronicle the Queen and her sister Princess Margaret performing in castle pantos.

The images show white wigs, grand costumes and a band that appears to be members of the Royal Horse Guards. The principal boy's legs, in silk stockings, look absolutely tremendous, according to a BBC commentator.

The album, which is going to be auctioned, was preserved by a Windsor schoolboy. The stage was set in the Waterloo Chamber at Windsor Castle. Performed during 1941-44, when the two princesses were sent for safety to live in Windsor, as their parents stayed on in Buckingham Palace while bombs rained down on London.

After the sisters appeared in a charity concert to raise funds for the troops, it was likely Princess Margaret who proposed that they tackle a pantomime. The Queen often played male roles, including Aladdin and Prince Florizel to her sister's Cinderella.

Panto traditions go back as far as Italy in the Renaissance, but the British scripts date back to the early 19th century. Cinderella, the most popular of all pantomimes, was first shown in 1870 in Covent Garden, London.

Perhaps it is a sense of predictability that keeps them popular. Last year, profits were up, along with ticket sales. Today the best sellers include pop songs.

"It appeals to people right across the age range,” Peter Rowe, who has written a number of the adaptations, told The Guardian. “Even teenagers and twentysomething’s, who I think get a really raw deal when it comes to theatre at Christmas, have a good time with it.”

Producer Derrick Gask said the use of pop music, "is why panto survives.

It's always paralleled what's been going on, it passes social comment, and it follows trends."

Elsewhere in Britain, you'll find a panto on ice skates, a rap version and a gay panto, as well as purely adult productions, such as one called Dick Comes Again: Bigger, Longer Harder! at the Leicester Square Theatre.

Writer and director Susie McKenna says, "Panto is a craft.

“But as long as you have the bedrock, you can take the audience anywhere. That's the joy of panto."

Certainly the Fezziwig Society locally has transported their audiences to some crazy places.

In 2006, time travel brought the band Men Will Be Boys into Dickensian England. The next year there were two geniis in Aladdin.

Panto story lines and scripts typically make no reference to Christmas. The panto has a number of conventions: including audience participation and slapstick comedy. Often a mature woman (the panto dame) is played by a man in drag. Mike Butler generally inhabits that character for the Fezziwig productions. Last year, he was hilarious as a Tinkerbelle who took ten minutes to come close to dying.

I’ve laughed till my sides ached at him and other stellar performers like David Simpson as a Prince Charming who got tongue-tied around girls.

“I lose the power of speech. Boys, no problem…as soon as it’s a girl, I can’t form words and I say stupid things! How am I ever going to find a bride with that problem? They scare me,” his character said.

This coming weekend, listen for references to Canning or New Minas during Fezziwig’s sequel to Alice in Wonderland. Expect broad comedy, winking asides, audience participation and men in dresses. It will all be over the top at the Festival Theatre.

Organizations: BBC, Waterloo Chamber, The Guardian Leicester Square Theatre Fezziwig Society Festival Theatre

Geographic location: London, Windsor Castle, England Wolfville Italy Britain New Minas Wonderland

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