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Anyone for Prince Charming’s Balls? Panto is the essence of Britishness

PUBLISHED: 15:08 20 December 2018

Sleeping Beauty panto at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange. Picture: Matthew Usher

Sleeping Beauty panto at the King's Lynn Corn Exchange. Picture: Matthew Usher

Matthew Usher

Nick Conrad celebrates the Great British panto and explains how it perfectly represents the national psyche

A Merry Christmas to you all.

I hope over the next fortnight you have time to rest, reflect and get together with loved ones and family.

Many families have curious little traditions which I find quaint.

One such tradition has become an annual pilgrimage for many of you.

Chances are, if you are a parent or grandparent, you will be accompanying a child to a pantomime this month or next. It is just so British!

Now I must confess I have tired a little of men dressed as women and women dressed as men, but dames, villains and fairies are back on the agenda because my children love panto!

I took Erin two years ago to see my friend Helen McDermott in her excellent Gorleston show and she loved every ‘ooooh’ and ‘boo.’ One glimpse of the huge grin over my little daughter’s face and I fell back in love with these unique shows.

This trip reignited my appreciation for the genre and how tricky it is to put together a really good festive show.

We are well served here in Norfolk with Thursford, Cromer Pier, Norwich Theatre Royal,

The Corn Exchange and Gorleston who appear to have perfected the art.

And behind these professional spectaculars we are lucky to have several Norfolk ‘am dram’ groups.

Village halls, community theatres and schools are staging winter shows.

It’s rather enjoyable watching everyone from the local accountant, teacher or the village plumber morphing into character and leaving their inhibitions at the door. Yes, some of the acting is ‘wooden’...so wooden it makes Thetford Forest look lively, however that is part of the appeal.

My friend and colleague Kayleigh Poacher has written, stars in and directs a fabulous panto in Attlebrough.

Made up of a completely amateur cast, this year’s show, Pinocchio, runs for three days.

I’ve spoken regularly to Kayleigh as she’s penned the script – and boy oh boy it’s not simple. To make it funny and relevant but also be true to the traditional narrative is a juggling act.

It’s tough in these ‘sensitive times’ to get the balance right. Many traditional puns are no longer envogue.

Put on top of that managing a cast, who themselves are balancing work and family commitments with rehearsals and boy, what a headache! Is it worth it in the end? Yes. Watching from the wings Kayleigh bursts with pride as the show comes together. The unity on stage demonstrates how the arts is crucial in bringing people together.

Panto is one of those quintessentially English things and it must never die out.

It is the only art form we can claim as a British invention, and it says a lot about our collective psyche that we love its Dames in outrageous frocks and OTT make-up, and its relentless double entendres, with much talk of Prince Charming’s balls and Aladdin’s magic ring. It chimes with all age groups as adult themes drift over innocent heads, youngsters transfixed on the central narrative.

Panto’s enduring appeal lies in its ability to react to social and cultural changes. The storyline is just a skeleton, fleshed out by topical puns and modern music. I’ve often found myself chuckling along, blissfully unaware of where we are in the story. It speaks anew to each generation – it may be traditional but can also shape-shift for modern audiences.

Go on this Christmas, give our theatres and acting groups a timely boost and support your local panto. Relax and immerse yourself in the spirit of the show. Amongst my friends I’ve often found the most cynical end up enjoying themselves the most. If nothing else, look as if you are enjoying yourself so you’re not picked on by the cast. Actors can spot the grumpy git a mile off!

** The Attleborough Players annual panto runs from January 24th to 26th at the Connaught Hall. Tickets can be purchased online or Susan’s Workbasket Shop on the High Street.

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