Are pantos an enjoyable form of theatre?

20 December 2012

Along with mince pies and tipsy distant relatives, pantomimes are a seasonal inevitability. Much like the mince pies and the relatives, some people love them and some people hate them.

TCS decided to face the issue so you don’t have to, and below two students debate the question: are pantos an enjoyable form of theatre?

Arguing Oh yes they are! is Dan Leigh, a first year from Magdalene College:

People are often very quick to dismiss pantomimes. They say that they are blatantly unoriginal, shamelessly melodramatic and consistently break John Cleese’s three rules of comedy: “One, no puns. Two, no puns. Three, no puns!” But others will cry,”but that is what is so good about them!”

Pantomime is abhorrent to anyone fixated on artistic endeavour and merit, yet that is not what they are aiming towards at all: their main focus is fun, and above all family fun. There is a period in life between childhood and parenthood where pantos probably slip from the Christmas agenda, yet those immediately either side of this period can find much to enjoy in these shows. There’s everything from the anarchic slapstick and shouting “he’s behind you!”, to the awful innuendos and watching respected thespians like Sir Ian McKellen don the outlandish guise of Widow Twanky. Getting adults and kids to laugh at the same show, let alone the same jokes, is a rare accomplishment, and one that pantomime regularly achieves. I would even argue that this sets pantos in the same class as the Pixar films, or even The Simpsons!

However, if you are hell-bent on judging artistry then there are definitely things to analyse and explore within this tradition. Pantomime is an extremely self-conscious and postmodern art form: the fourth wall is entirely non-existent! It is also rooted in the theatrical tradition of cross-dressing, though somewhat inverts the historical use of boys to play female parts by frequently having Aladdin or Dick Whittington played by a woman. While gender boundaries are transgressed, questions of morality are often overtly clear. There are no shades of grey: the goodies are good and the baddies bad. The audience knows exactly when to boo and hiss.

Ultimately you can make of them what you what you wish, but there is certainly value in the genre, and often an abundance of fun. And besides, in today’s world of fear, uncertainty and moral ambiguity, isn’t it nice that a place exists where good will always be good, evil will always be evil, the jokes will always be bad, men will always be women and women will always be men? And it will be on at the same time of year, every year, always!

Arguing Oh no they’re not! is Oliver Thicknesse, a second year also from Magdalene College:

Bah. Humbug. This article is going to make me look like a Scrooge. There’s no point in me fighting it. So I won’t. Judge away. But I’m not going to let the truth about the abominations we call pantomimes remain covered up.

My main reason for detesting pantos comes from the steady influx of B/C/D-list ‘celebrities’ who dominate the scene from Aberdeen to Milton Keynes. I’m not ashamed to admit that, as a young child, I didn’t watch soaps. Far from it: I take pleasure in the fact that I didn’t. But that left me all at sea during panto-season – I could never understand why the orange thing on stage was so well-received.

Yes, they could do the basics. But if they were looking for magic, it was sadly lacking. In fact, the posters still incense me slightly; loudly proclaiming somebody from Eastenders appearing as Widow Twanky screams of career-decline, even if that somebody was most famous as “the one who was shot by her brother’s step-father, with whose dog she was having an affair and whose medication she was stealing/addicted to”. Of them, little did I know. Or care.

Also, pantos were frankly embarrassing. When Peter Pan asked the audience to shout out if they “believed in fairies”, I couldn’t have shrunk further into my seat. Such a rash outburst would have been perfect ammunition for my brothers to torture me with incessantly. On the other hand, if you stayed silent, if you didn’t believe – heaven forbid! – exactly the same torture would be endured on the drive home. It was Catch-22 for a quiet, bookish child, who just wanted a niche literary reference.

Moreover, pantos are just too cliched. As cliched as a Scandinavian police-drama: ultimately a veritable smorgasbord of mono-syllabic conversations, climaxes in the dark (ahem), and cable-knit jumpers. I’m sure that my colleague will argue this as all part of the fun and fantasy of it all, but not old Scrooge here. As Harry Michell himself screamed out in frustration during this year’s Footlight’s panto, it is amazingly simple to craft any sort of joke out of the audience shouting “Oh yes you are / oh no you’re not”. Indeed, it was used so much that I’m amazed that the production got anywhere.

And another thing, SINCE WHEN DID TREASURE ISLAND OR CINDERELLA HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS?! If you want to somehow represent Christmas, don’t do it via the medium of a frankly terrifying pantomime dame. Just watch “It’s a Wonderful Life”. Done. So I’ll take my future kids to the pantomime, pray they hate it, and then we’ll forever watch a combination of The Grinch, A Nightmare before Christmas and A Muppet Christmas Carol. Because if this article is going to make a Scrooge out of me, I’d rather be the Michael Caine of Scrooges.