This is the third Christmas since I left Australia and each festive season, I have made a point of visiting that most British of institutions, the Pantomime.
For the uninitiated, Pantomimes could be broadly described as musical stage shows, taking place exclusively over the Christmas period and with a particular appeal to a family audience.
But in reality they are so much more than that – they are part of the wonderful eccentricity that makes Britain great.
This year, I went along once again to the Devonshire Park Theatre in Eastbourne to see their 2014 offering of Beauty and the Beast.
It had all the classic Panto ingredients – let me (try) to explain.
First of all, any successful Pantomime nowadays generally needs a star name to attract the punters. Often this role will be filled by a TV star – usually a Soapie – who fancies a crack at treading the boards.
This year’s star name was one Carley Stenson, a leading character from the popular soap Hollyoaks.
Now, I have to confess I’ve never watched the show so wasn’t particularly starstruck, but she did cut a strong and somewhat slinky figure as the malevolent evil witch called, well, Malevolent, actually.
Secondly, the show needs a Pantomime Dame – a larger than life male character who plays an even larger than life female character.
This performance saw a return of the Martyn Knight who seems to have a residency as the Devonshire Dame, this time masquerading under the name of Dame Derriere. – cue lots of French-themed double entendres (for the adults) and slapstick (for the kids)
And as her sidekick, we had local comedian Tucker, also returning again to play a sort of narrator, French by name (Potty Pierre – double entendres/slapstick at the ready) and cockney by accent who kept the proceedings rolling along with exceptional good humour.
The other main actors and supporting cast were both colourful and engaging as they switched between rhyming verse and full song-and-dance routines.
Music is a central theme of the Pantomime and the performance skilfully manage to weave old classics and current songs into the general dialogue without missing a beat.
But it is perhaps the irreverent humour and the audience participation that really differentiates Pantomime from other theatre genres.
From the classic audience shouts of “He’s behind you” to an actor ‘unable’ to see what is lurking just outside his peripheral vision, to the back and forth banter of “Oh yes it is/Oh no it isn’t”, the role of the audience is a highly active one.
And I think that’s the trick to enjoying Pantomime.
Cast off your world-weary cynicism and leave your theatre critic hat in the car because this is one show to be embraced fully. And if you do that, you can be pretty much guaranteed a good time.
I sometimes wonder what non-Brits must make of Pantomime’s peculiar mix of costumes, campness, innuendo, cultural references, audience participation and general kitsch.
But from my point of view, I love Pantomime for all its wonderful eccentricities and will be back again at the Devonshire Theatre next year for sure.
Oh yes I will.