Pantomime favourites

3rd December 2004 at 00:00
The ghost gag

One of the oldest routines, it can be set almost anywhere. On stage are the Dame, the Comic and the Second Comic. The Comic says he doesn't like the look of the place, it might be haunted. He asks the audience to shout if they see a ghost and then they sing to keep their spirits up. The ghost appears, the audience shrieks: "It's behind you!" The trio fail to see it and sing again. Then the Second Comic sees it and runs away. Next time, the Comic sees it and runs away. Left alone, the Dame sings - still not having seen the ghost. When the ghost next enters (again to shouts from the audience), the Dame turns round, and sees it - and the terrified ghost runs away.

Audience participation

Making them greet a character's every appearance is just one way a pantomime audience is immediately involved in the action.

Another favourite device (early in the show) is to find a member of the audience who has a birthday that day and then get the whole audience to sing "Happy Birthday". The Dame may also have sweets to throw to the audience during a nonsense song.

Late in the show, children may be brought on stage to play simple musical instruments or to perform a simple task necessary to the plot.

And then there is the community singing just before the finale. Oh yes there is...

Spesh acts

In 1895, Paul Cinquevalli played Slave of the Lamp to Dan Leno's Widow Twankey in Aladdin at Drury Lane. Originally a trapeze artist, he turned to juggling after an accident but became famous for his skill in playing billiards on his own back.

Almost every music hall bill featured some such speciality act, and one was included in every pantomime. Highly popular was the comedy "Sand dance", based on poses familiar from Egyptian tomb art, performed by Wilson, Keppel and Betty.

The tradition is maintained in some pantomimes, eg with a flying aerial ballet or a "black theatre" scene in which skeletons (actors in black body stockings decorated with fluorescent paint) perform a dance or other routine.

Slapstick

Frequently set in a kitchen, the slapstick scene usually involves the Dame and Comic. It rapidly deteriorates into farce - involving much mixing of flour and water, real eggs, strings of elasticated sausages and the inevitable custard pies.

Such scenes must be played with deadly seriousness to achieve their full impact - and shaving foam makes less mess than whipped cream. Health and safety regulations are just one reason why such scenes are more restrained than they used to be: water must be kept away from stage lighting and slippery patches must not remain on stage during later scenes. And some of today's performers are more conscious of their dignity than those of previous generations.

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