Look out behind you! It’s Panto time!



THERE was an awful moment of doubt in the’ Oh no you can’t, oh yes you can’ dilemma about whether or not it was all right to go to the Pantomime in these Covid curtailed times. But thankfully Panto tradition has survived given the reassurance from on high that we can still enjoy one of the treats of the year.
Growing up in Belfast the highlight of the festive season, after the day itself, was the Christmas pantomime. Performed in the gilt and plush of the 1895 Grand Opera House. Whatever happened to be on, from Aladdin to Puss ‘N Boots, would be a brilliant mix of familiar and surprise in a tradition which has its roots in the masques and gender bending casting of the 17th century.
As a kid I didn’t bother my barney about why the principal boy was a girl with fantastic legs on show or why the Pantomime dame was a guy. The gold elephants decorating the auditorium were a worry though. Wouldn’t they get tired holding up those pillars? Like my brother and sister, I would be on the edge of my seat waiting for the transformation scene where Aladdin’s jewelled cave, Cinderella’s ball scene or the world Jack found when he climbed the beanstalk would be revealed as if by magic.

Then there was the sheer glee of watching actors sling custard pies at each other or the audience participation and being able to roar out, “Look out he’s behind you” when the ghost or monster loomed behind an unsuspecting leading character. On one occasion the monster was a terrifying King Rat and it all got too much for my brother who howled and suffered nightmares afterwards. He was only four at the time but he was back again the following year for another show.
Our parents enjoyed the shows too, I guess on different levels revisiting their own childhoods, laughing at the double meanings and political jokes children didn’t get. But most of all for the way kids believe what they see and are enchanted by the magic created by the Panto cast.
In towns and cities all around Ireland as Covid figures soared and there were rumours of another lockdown casts of the current pantomimes and theatre management must have been heaving a collective sigh of relief. The show will go on whether it’s Cinderella at the Watergate Theatre in Kilkenny, Aladdin at the national Stadium in Dublin, Pinocchio The Greatest Wonder Of The Age at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast or Red Riding Hood at the Helix.
All those incredible costumes, the gorgeous scenery and stories where children know that no matter how bad the baddies (and you get to boo them) the goodies always win in the end, won’t go to waste. Who knows if those seasonal shows with huge casts and costs, which rely on audience takings might not be back again next year and Covid would have claimed another victory.
In this situation it’s been left to us to use our common sense and make our own decisions about whether or not it’s a good idea to go rather than being dictated to by the experts. Hopefully by the time the Panto season is in full swing the Covid numbers will have declined further, children will be getting vaccinated and more of us will have had our booster jabs.
We all need some magic and enchantment in our lives especially right now. It’s good to know that need is recognised and that the child still survives in some of our decision makers. I hope they get a chance to go to the Panto too.

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