Pride and Prejudice: The Panto

On Wednesday I attended my second-ever pantomime. If you grew up with them, pantomimes might be totally commonplace for you, but imagine how peculiar they’d seem to anyone unfamiliar with the tradition. I was introduced to this campy theatrical genre in early 2006, when I saw my first panto, Jack and the Beanstalk, with my in-laws in Winchester.

Luckily I’d been given a brief primer, so I knew vaguely what to expect: a fairytale or other traditional story (e.g. Cinderella, Aladdin or Peter Pan), often featuring a young hero played by a female, a central female role played by a man in outrageous drag (this is the “pantomime dame”), stock lines including “It/He/She’s behind you!” and “Oh yes, it is”/ “Oh no, it isn’t,” an obvious villain whom the audience is invited to boo, and a mixture of puns, inane and/or raunchy jokes frequently referencing popular culture, and silly musical numbers. (The Wikipedia entry on pantomimes is actually quite a helpful history lesson.)

My mother- and father-in-law take part in an annual pantomime put on by the Steventon Players near their home in Hampshire, and this year the theme was Pride and Prejudice – appropriate given that 2017 marks 200 years since Jane Austen’s death and that she lived for her first 25 years in Steventon, where her father was the rector. In fact, she completed a first draft of Pride and Prejudice, then titled First Impressions, at home in Steventon in 1796.

The whole cast in the final musical number. My mother-in-law, as Mary Bennet, is at the front left. My father-in-law, as Mr. Collins, is at the back in the center in the black hat.
The whole cast in the final musical number. My mother-in-law, as Mary Bennet, is at the front, second from left (white dress). My father-in-law, as Mr. Collins, is at the back in the center (large black hat).

We had the chance to see the panto on the opening night of four. My mother-in-law, the priest at Steventon and other local churches, played Mary Bennet (a rather thankless role that involved sitting with her nose in a book and issuing the occasional sharp reproach to her mother or Lydia), and my father-in-law was a suitably fawning, cringing Reverend Collins.

Mr. Collins's marriage proposal to Lizzy is swiftly rejected.
Mr. Collins’s marriage proposal to Lizzy is swiftly rejected.

The play was narrated by “Jane Austen’s ghost,” an actress in period costume who sat to one side of the stage and gave bits of information in a wry, knowing voice to move the plot along between scenes (she also helpfully called out prompts for forgotten lines!). I’d conveniently forgotten about the pantomime dame custom, so was taken aback at the first appearance of Mrs. Bennet. Not one but two actors appeared in drag, the other being a fabulous beturbaned Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who was presented as the clear villain of the piece.

Mr. Collins quails before his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
Mr. Collins quails before his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

Impressively, the panto remained almost entirely faithful to the plot of the novel, just cutting and combining scenes to keep it under two hours and make it fit into a two-act structure. For instance, Mr. Collins and Wickham make their first appearance at the same time, and Mr. Collins proposes to Lizzy pretty much immediately. Instead of hearing of Lydia and Wickham’s elopement secondhand, we see it for ourselves in a scene set on their midnight ride to Gretna Green, with Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy accosting them like highwaymen.

Highlights included a joke about Mr. Darcy’s manhood, Mrs. Bennet getting sozzled at the ball hosted by Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy traipsing up the aisle in flippers and goggles in homage to the BBC’s lake-and-wet-shirt scene, and Lizzy’s repartee with Lady Catherine. Audience participation was welcome on musical numbers such as “Money, Money, Money” and “I’m a Believer.”

Mrs. B. and her five daughters (my mother-in-law is at the far left).
Mrs. B. and her five daughters (my MIL is at far left).

Other running gags were Mrs. Bennet’s dramatic entries (to her “Hello, everybody!” the audience was meant to reply “Mrs. B., is it time for tea?”), the Bennets’ servant’s general uselessness, and Mr. Bingley’s two hapless footmen (I’m told that Tweedledee and Tweedledum-style characters are also common in pantomimes).

We were impressed with the authentic costuming and set design in this amateur village hall production. Anachronistic pop music aside, you might well have believed you were in the Regency period during the dance scene at the ball. I’d certainly never seen Pride and Prejudice like this before, but it was great fun.

Where do you stand on pantomimes? What’s your favorite P&P adaptation?

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16 thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice: The Panto

  1. That certainly sounds a different panto. A great lover of tradition, you’d think I’d be a panto fan. I hated them as a child, living in dread of being commanded to come up on stage, and way too shy to join in the chorus of ‘he’s behind you!’. While I ‘get’ them more now, I’d never make any effort to go to one, though I might put some thought into wriggling politely out of any invitation that came my way.

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    1. Oh dear, the threat of audience participation does sound terrifying! There was a small bit here where two people (known to the cast, I should think) were asked to come up and put on wigs to read a letter, but it wasn’t too cringey. I think I most enjoy pantos as an uncharacteristically flamboyant English tradition.

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  2. Pantomimes generally make me want to die of embarrassment, but I found that having been exposed to them was handy when I watched the West End adaptation of Matilda, where the Trunchbull is played by a man in a clear borrowing from panto dame culture. My friend visiting from the States – a gender studies major – was thoroughly fascinated by the whole concept! It looks like this was a pretty impressive village production too (LOVING Lady Catherine’s costume!)

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    1. Yes, it was all really well done for a village production. Lady Catherine was my favourite for sure!

      I’m sure an entire gender studies thesis/book could be or has been devoted to pantomimes. You could trace the gender bending back to Shakespeare and then forward to late-twentieth-century movies…

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  3. I never enjoyed pantomimes as a child – the participatory aspect frightened me. But I think I’d enjoy them now; perhaps I’ll take my young grandsons to one and find out 🙂 Possibly not this particular show though – definitely one for the grown-ups I imagine. It sounds a hoot, and very original. Well done to mother and father-in-law and everyone involved!

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    1. There were certainly raunchy aspects to the humour, but I think that’s probably true of all pantomimes and other performances that involve cross-dressing. Hopefully those jokes will just go right over kids’ heads!

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