Here in this little Greek island preparations are almost complete for the yearly pantomime, performed in English by the English. We do it around Easter as many of the English are away in winter. On the first night of our first pantomime here some years ago, very few local people came; ‘Oh it’s just for the foreigners.’ But those few who did were so astonished and had such a good time that the next night and at all subsequent performances locals were clamouring for the last few available seats. We have had to introduce advance booking, though this is a concept ungraspable by most Greeks.
Readers who were not brought up in England will need to know a little about the traditional English Pantomime. Hold onto your seats:
An English Traditional Pantomime is intended as a Christmas entertainment for children and their parents. It is always based loosely on a well-known fairy story, such as Cinderella or, this year, Snow White. There are lots of jokes and songs and a fair amount of embarrassing audience participation: the audience is required to shout, over and over again, ‘Oh no it isn’t!’ whenever some stage character says ‘Oh yes it is!’ (or vice versa), and ‘Behind you!’ when the character keeps failing to notice some enemy creeping up on him. Towards the end of the show the audience is even forced to sing a song.
But the weirdest feature of all is the casting: the ‘Principal Boy’, the young male lead who will eventually marry the princess or whoever, is always played by a young and attractive woman, wearing tights to show off her legs, and doing her best to behave butch-ly. The Principal Girl whom ‘he’ will marry is not, however, usually played by a boy, but by another girl. Another stock character is the wicked stepmother, or the ugly sister, or the widow who takes in washing, or the fairy Godmother: this character is usually played by a man, in drag of course, and care is taken to choose an actor who is a well-known screaming queen, and is for the occasion allowed, indeed expected, to camp it up as outrageously as possible.
‘And this is an entertainment for children?’ Well, yes. No wonder the English are so odd.