The Great British Pantomime

We started our Sunday by watching the snow fall outside our London windows, which was a first for us. E was SUPER excited. Seems she’s already forgotten how much snow she’s seen in past winters in Baltimore. “Look at how many snows are on the cars!”

[Then and now:]

Well, because this is London, that wasn’t actually many snows, so we had no trouble getting to the New Wimbledon Theatre last night.


One very British Christmastime tradition is taking the family to see a “panto,” short for “pantomime,” which is an over-the-top-cheesy stage production of a classic story, e.g., Cinderella, Peter Pan, or, for our choice, Jack and the Beanstalk. A lot of them star fairly well known British actors or comedians, and this one featured Al Murray and Clive Rowe. M and I had never heard of either of them, but according to the internets, they seem marginally famous.

The panto format is pretty ridiculous. There’s no fourth wall and a lot of audience participation (to M’s chagrin). Whenever the villain appears on stage, the audience boos loudly. There’s a lot of yelling things like “He’s behind you!”, and the actors and audience yelling back and forth at each other: “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is!”

There’s clapping and singing along, and several people are chosen to stand up and do something, or even (M shudders) are brought up on stage. There’s a lot of British humour and pop culture references throughout.

“And where would we be if there weren’t any rules?” Audience: “France!” “And where would we be if there were too many rules?” Audience: “Germany!” They love it.

There are musical numbers and bright, glittery costumes and really punny jokes eliciting groans from the audience and “badum-tss” from the orchestra pit. There’s also a fair amount of crude humour meant to go over the kids’ heads (I hope it does).

“These biscuits came from the palace. They’re Meghan’s favourite. Ginger Nuts.”

I got us seats right in the middle of the third row of the stalls, which, in hindsight, was stupid, because we very easily could have been made to participate. I’m lucky M didn’t get singled out last night, because I think that I would have been single today.

The production value was much higher than I expected. This wasn’t community theatre. The set, special effects, costumes, and quality of the actors/singers/dancers was actually good. In the second act, when they go up the beanstalk to the giant’s castle, we were told to put on our 3D glasses, and the background of the set was a screen with 3D animation. There were lots of shrieks from the audience as things appeared to jump right out of the set at us.

E got a bit scared at that point, and quickly took off her glasses, but otherwise she enjoyed it. She told me today her favourite part was how every time Jack’s mother (Clive Rowe) came out and yelled “Coooey!” we were all supposed to yell “Coooey!” back to her. Then I had to show her photos of the actor online to prove to her that he was actually a man, because she didn’t believe me.

R enjoyed the musical numbers, mooing at the cow, and also all the snacks I continually fed her to get her to stay in one place for two hours. I was wishing I’d brought the noise-blocker headphones I’d bought for her before Bonfire Night, though, as it was all quite loud.

At the end, they gave shoutouts to all the individuals in the audience who were celebrating their birthdays, and we all sang “Happy Birthday” together. It was all just silly, ridiculous fun.

The actress who played the good fairy-type character (she was called the “Spirit of the Beans,” which really just sounds like a euphemism for gas) joined us on the train platform heading back to Clapham Junction. She was met a minute later by the evil villain (who was called “FleshCreep”; I considered giving him a big BOOOOO but decided I’d refrain from embarrassing my family), and they boarded our same train car together. E seemed intrigued to see them as normal people just riding the train in their regular clothes.

And so continues our month of giant Christmas fe-fi-fo-fun! (That pun would fit right in at a panto, honest.)




Handel’s Messiah at St Paul’s Cathedral

Tonight M and I attended the annual Handel’s Messiah concert at St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s a free but ticketed event, and the tickets are snapped up as soon as they become available.

My mom was really hoping to be here for it, and was disappointed when she learned the concert was a week before she and my dad arrive. She loves the Messiah, plus she is an Anglophile and a history buff, as well as a former choir girl herself, so hearing the “Hallelujah” chorus echoing off the dome of Wren’s masterpiece would have been total bliss for her. Though I’m probably just making her feel worse now. Should I also tell her Colin Firth and Pierce Brosnan were the greeters, and they were handing out free wine and popcorn?

It was sung by the St Paul’s Cathedral Choir, which is made up of 30 boy choristers and 12 Vicars Choral, who are professional singers, nearly all men. The soprano parts were sung by the boys, who looked so small up there to be singing so beautifully. The orchestra was provided by the City of London Sinfonia. The St Paul’s Cathedral Chorus, the church’s amateur choir, also joined in the chorus.

Messiah is a beautiful piece of music, which I’ve heard many, many times over the years (closing my eyes I could imagine I was back at home in Oregon, the music playing on the stereo while my mom and I baked Christmas cookies), but I actually didn’t know anything about it.

It’s an 18th-century English oratoria, which is basically an opera, but without actors or stage action. This type of performance was pioneered by George Frederic Handel, and he wrote Messiah in just three weeks. I also didn’t know that about half a century later, Mozart made additions to the orchestral score.

It’s customary to stand during the “Hallelujah” chorus, and the story is that when George II first heard Messiah, he was so thrilled by this part that he stood up. Since court protocol dictated that no one should sit while the king was standing, the whole audience stood up as well.

I don’t think there were any royals in attendance this evening, but we all dutifully stood for the “Hallelujah” chorus, and evidently someone nearby was so thrilled that they couldn’t contain their, uh, personal wind. (M swore in a particularly magnificent house of God it wasn’t him.)

Affronts to the olfactory organs aside, the concert was lovely; but it was COLD in there. We kept our coats on the entire time and were still chilled. At least where we were sitting, back in “economy class.” It felt warmer toward the middle of the church, where the choir and musicians were, and a closer section of reserved seats—not sure how you get tickets for the reserved section. I walked up there to before the concert started to get a better look and was brusquely reprimanded like I was trying to use the first-class lavatories.

The tickets we had were unreserved seating, so we joined the very long queue that wrapped around the building before the doors opened at 5:30, a full hour before the concert started. If they want to make some money off this event, all they need to do is set up some tables selling hot mulled wine.

The concert lasted two and a half hours, with one short interval after Part 1, and an offering collection after Part 2 (the suggested offering was £10 per person).

Thank you, Mom, for getting us the tickets, and I really wish you could have been there, too. Maybe next year?