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A beginner's Guide to Panto

By Lucy Mathews

For most of us here in the UK, panto at Christmas time is as traditional as turkey, carols, and that one glass of mulled wine too many. We love the songs, the sparkle, the fun, and know exactly when to shout 'It’s behind you!' at our oblivious hero or heroine. Women dressed as men, men dressed as women, people dressed as animals, all of this seems pretty normal to us.

At Richmond Theatre we welcome visitors from all over the world. We even have our very own American supermodel, the legendary Jerry Hall, starring in this year’s pantomime, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. So how must this wonderful British Christmas tradition of ours seem to those who are unfamiliar with our weird and wacky ways? We asked some international panto fans from Richmond, The American International University in London, to find out.

'My favourite bits are the audience participation (oh no they’re not...oh yes they are!) and the clever inside jokes that are for the parents and grandparents,' says Allison Cole-Stutz, an American who has attended panto at Richmond Theatre with her family for the past 4 years.

'Even though it is meant to be children’s entertainment, there’s something for everyone. Can’t wait to see Jerry Hall this year!'

'Before going, I never really heard of a panto show, I had to ask around to see what it would be all about,' admits American expat Tracy Wills.

'My first impression was that it was just for the kiddies. But as an audience member, after a while I appreciated the style of acting - the over the top performances made me laugh. And watching the kids get excited about it all was really fun. The set and costumes were fantastic, and overall it was just really enjoyable.'

'I would say the breaking down of the border between the audience and the cast is the most shocking thing for non Brits,' says long time British panto goer, Spencer Withrington.

'That back and forth does not exist in American theatres.'

American student Laura Thompson is familiar with panto thanks to her English parents. 'As a general rule I have noticed that American and English forms of entertainment are very different,' she observes.

'American is more crude and outright funny. While English you have to have background knowledge to find it funny.'

'Pantos are great fun, especially the cross- dressing, the sexual innuendo and the direct audience interaction,' says Dr. Sarah Chetin, an American university lecturer.

'It is such a wonderful tradition that helps outsiders to understand some aspects of the very unique British sense of humour.'

But it seems that many American expats have come to love this quintessentially British spectacle. 'I have lived in the UK for almost 7 years now, and I absolutely love it when the Christmas season rolls around – that means it is Panto time!' says Anderson Hillen. 'I first saw Cinderella and absolutely loved it. The obvious funny bits that were exaggerated really cracked me up – the characters, the 'he’s behind you', etc! It is something that I look forward to every year when the festive season approaches!'

Top 5 to know before you go!

1. Songs

With song choices ranging from this year’s number one hits, to 80’s pop anthems, to West End show stoppers, panto has something for everyone. Impromptu sing-a-longs are highly encouraged!

2. Baddies

  No panto hero or heroine can truly prove their worth without a good villain to vanquish. Glamorous, greedy, spiteful, or scary , panto villains come in all shapes and sizes. Never miss the chance to give them a good loud boo, even if you find yourself secretly rooting for them in the end!

3. Celebs

Back in the day , panto stars were famous music hall performers. Today, the celebrity stars are international household names from the worlds of television, music, and comedy. Panto is a great opportunity to get up close and personal with your favourite celebs!

4. Jokes

Any panto worth its salt should leave the audience rolling in the aisles. Jokes range from  good old slapstick,  to outrageous puns, to double entendres meant just for the grown ups. This is no time for politely restrained giggles, let out those big belly laughs, extra points for snorting.

5. Get Involved!

Forget everything you know about theatre etiquette,  in panto audience participation is key. Baddies should be booed at, heroes should be cheered, and the most famous gag of all, when a character asks you to play lookout, you must shout “It’s behind you!” when the baddie looms. Participating is half of the fun and refusing to do so will certainly brand you  a stick in the mud...and rightly so!

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs starring Jerry Hall runs Fri 5th December 2014 to Sun 11th January 2015 at Richmond Theatre

Are you an expat who has come to love this British institution? Or are you planning on seeing panto for the first time this Christmas? Let us know by tweeting @RichmondTheatre and keep up to date with all things panto related by liking us on Facebook.