The history of panto

by Katie Rowe

Category: Culture vulture
December 30 2013

James BarryWe catch up with James Barry, Pantomime expert (oh no he's not, oh yes he is) and Director of Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs – showing at the Theatre Royal Winchester until 5 January – to talk about the origins of the traditional Christmas show, men in dresses and a panto villainess.

Seeing a pantomime is as much a part of a traditional Christmas as… mince pies, exchanging presents and singing carols. The essential panto should have a Dame character, contain plenty of audience participation - 1,2,3…it’s behind you - and be a story about the triumph of good over evil. A good panto is one that caters for all the family, rather than just being a children’s show.

What we would now recognise as pantomime came into existence in…the early 18th Century. It developed from the Harlequinade, which came from the Commedia del Arte tradition.

Men playing women on stage is…as old as theatre itself. I think Dame roles have always been a part of the panto tradition. I have seen some brave women take on the dame role, but to me it just doesn't work. And it should be an obvious man in a frock, NOT a drag act.

Theatre Royal WinchesterWe’re showing Snow White this year… and it is one of the loveliest stories in the panto canon. The Wicked Queen is a terrific panto villainess, Snow White is the iconic damsel in distress, and of course there are the lovable dwarfs. And our version in particular has some great surprises and twists on the traditional story. It has so many of the best pantomime elements in it. Not just a villain, heroine, Dame and comic, but also seven dwarfs, a magic mirror and a handsome prince as well. It's a full house!

Sometimes your favourite routine or funniest gag has to… go for the sake of the show overall. Deciding what to cut or leave out is the toughest challenge I face a director. Panto people are so creative and enthusiastic; we could easily end up with a show twice as long! It's my job to pare it all down and run a tight ship.

Snow White is on until 5th January at the Theatre Royal Winchester, don’t miss out!

Holiday Inn Winchester is offering a special Christmas pantomime package.

Katie Rowe

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