Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Culture shock

The Christmas Panto is a longstanding British holiday tradition about which I knew virtually nothing when an American expat friend and I decided to get in on the action. (In hindsight, I could as easily have Googled "panto" before we went as I did to put that link in here and I probably would have saved myself a good deal of surprise. That would never have been as much fun, though.) We knew that pantos are supposed to provide good theatrical entertainment for kids, we knew that there was some sort of audience interaction component, and we knew that Henry Winkler was playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan this panto season. It all sounded quite lovely, but truth be told, red-blooded American girls that we are, they really had us at the Fonz. We booked tickets, left our young sons at home with their fathers and headed out with our daughters for a fun Girls' Evening Out at the theatre.

A side note: In addition to not researching pantos, we also neglected to research the theatre location before booking. Theatre + London = West End, right? As it turns out, not necessarily. In this case, it meant Wimbledon, which is slightly further from here than, say, Timbucktu. Our Girls' Evening Out became a Girls' Day And Evening And Long Into The Night Out by the time we'd both found our way to the area, had a bite to eat, seen the performance and returned home. Is it my imagination, or is my lack of research skills becoming an ongoing theme here lately?

Our girls, a 3 1/2 year old and two 5-this-weeks, were all nearly as excited to see Tinkerbell as their moms were to check out an aging Happy Days hot shot. We still weren't quite sure what to expect from the whole panto thing, however. "I hope this isn't too weird," we whispered to each other as we watched hundreds of costumed, sword-wielding children enter the theatre. At last, the curtain came up on a gorgeous set and beautifully costumed characters, and I felt myself relax a little. Obviously a panto couldn't be that different from regular children's theater, right? As Peter Pan soared across the stage for the first time, all 3 girls caught their breath and I smiled at my friend over their heads. This outing had been a great idea.

This smile turned out to be the first of many, many glances we would exchange in the next 2 1/2 hours as we were indoctrinated into the world of panto. The performance was like nothing either of us had ever seen; one minute it was traditional theater, the next minute we'd see actors step completely out of character for a little slapstick routine. There were beautifully choreographed (and hopelessly un-PC) Indian dance numbers featuring Tiger Lily and there were completely random dance numbers straight out of Grease (picture half a dozen pirates suddenly dropping their swords and rama-dama-ding-donging). Henry Winkler was every bit as likely to be teasing the stage manager, doubling over with laughter or channeling the Fonz as he was to be reciting his Captain Hook lines in character. Toilet paper rolls were flung into the audience, Wendy tenderly cared for the Little Lost Boys, the house lights came on for a rousing audience sing-along, we clapped our hands to help Tinkerbell get well and Smee took it from behind from a kangaroo. It was beyond a shadow of a doubt the most bizarre thing I had ever seen.

To say that we were all taken a bit off guard would be a healthy understatement. My favorite moment was when I looked around and realized that the theatre was filled with wild, raucous British children who were finally acting like my idea of "real kids" while our three American girls sat there, suddenly wide eyed and silent. But by the end, the girls were starting to get into the fun, and so was I. The British are notoriously private and proper, but they also have an incredibly forthright and downright dirty sense of humor. This was classic British entertainment -- bawdy and inappropriate and really, really funny. The fact that we had no idea what we were in for only made the situation even more hysterical.

I've never lived in a country with a vastly different language or culture than my own, but I have to presume that when one does so, the culture shock -- at least initially -- pretty much smacks you in the face all day long. Here in a country where, on the surface at least, the cultural and language differences are more subtle, it can be easy to forget about them much of the time. And then, when I least expect it, I get slapped with a healthy dose of culture shock. This time, the slap came in the form of slapstick, panto-style. I've never enjoyed the surprise or disorientation of being unexpectedly out of my element nearly as much.


Anonymous kristy said...

We actually have a performance in the style of a British Panto here in Raleigh: Cinderella. And as I saw it -- although, you don't really just "see" a panto -- this holiday season, I couldn't help but think of you. I'm so glad you found yourself pleasantly surprised!

6:39 PM  
Blogger Dana said...

This sounds hilarious. Glad you enjoyed yourself.

6:37 PM  
Blogger Steph said...

This sounds really funny and fun! Glad that you were pleasantly surprised.

7:10 PM  
Anonymous Mart said...

I came across yr panto post through a search and enjoyed reading it! I'm pleased you got to see a real British Christmas tradition and glad you all enjoyed it. It's a little daydream of mine to stage a real panto in America.


Surfer passin through :)

6:22 PM  

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