Last night Dawnise and I saw Mother Goose at the Hackney Empire theater. It was the first panto we’d been to since we went with visiting friends and their daughter in 2019, in the before-times.
Panto strikes me as a particularly English Christmas tradition, and not one I remember being exposed to before we moved here. I find it a bit hard to describe without regurgitating chunks of the Wikipedia article, but here goes…
Panto is family theater – children come in fancy dress, and sometimes their parents do, too. Extended families come en mass, occupying entire rows.
But panto isn’t “theater for kids” – the audience has a diversity I rarely see at other live performances – everyone from babes-in-arms to pensioners.
It’s intentionally camp without being denigrating. It features gender bending performances and pokes at stereotypes and current events, all against the backdrop of a morality play. It does it all in fun, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is seriously subversive.
The players sing and dance, and the audience sings – and sometimes dances – along. Characters call on the audience, the audience shouts in response. The valiant heroes are cheered, and the dastardly villains are booed. Sweets are flung into the crowd eliciting shrieks from kids who scramble to scoop them up.
In a city known for world class theater and dramatic performance, it would be easy to dismiss panto as frivolous. As something “less than.”
The production values we saw last night were in no way “less than.” The set pieces and costumes were eye-catching, and the vocals, choreography and performances were en pointe.
The stories are simple, without being simplistic. The jokes are hilarious to children and funny to adults, usually for very different reasons.
We laughed, we shouted at the stage, we cheered and we booed. And as the show resumed from intermission, looking at the festive chaos around me, I realized that panto has found its way into my adopted holiday traditions, right along side Christmas markets, mince pies, and feuerzangenbowle.
Happy Holiday season, friends.