Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being introduced to a revered UK holiday tradition – the Christmas pantomime. Contrary to what I originally thought, these musical stage productions are not typically holiday themed. Instead, a Christmas pantomime takes a classic children’s story or fairy tale and then, using humor, completely turns it on its head. Slapstick comedy, gender-crossing actors, pop culture references, adult innuendos, and audience participation are all common themes in Christmas pantomime productions.
I had heard about this tradition via a friend back in the U.S. who highly recommended we see a Christmas pantomime in London, so when my new friend, Emma, asked if Lexie and I would like to join her to check one out, I jumped at the chance!
With an abundance of Christmas pantomimes in the London area, the hardest part was choosing which one to see! We settled on Jack And The Beanstalk at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith because of its central location for the both of us. As it happened, the week before we were set to see the show, Lexie’s English teacher surprised the class with a spontaneous field trip to the Lyric Theatre, so Lexie had the good fortune of seeing this show twice!
The Lyric is a small theater, conveniently located next to the Hammersmith tube stations. (I prefer smaller theaters as they tend to make shows feel more intimate!) There are three levels in the theater – the stalls, the circle, and the upper circle. Our seats were located in the last row of the upper circle. Even purchasing tickets two weeks in advance, the majority of seats were already sold out. Christmas pantomimes are popular – you need to act fast to get good seats on weekends!
As for the production itself, this was not your average Jack And The Beanstalk story. Unless, of course, the story you heard as a child included a girl named Jack, a cross-dressing mother, the villainous Mr. Fleshcreep whose worst sin is his comb over, and an army of dancing cockroaches. Then yeah, that’s the one we saw.
The basic story was the same – Jack’s mom needs money so Jack must sell the family cow at market, Jack is tricked into coming home with beans instead of money, beans sprout into a beanstalk, Jack climbs the beanstalk and finds a giant, when Jack comes down they take an ax to the stalk keeping the giant from coming after them. And that’s about where the similarities ended.
I loved this production’s take on the story, especially the addition of the character, Sprout, Jack’s energetic friend and sidekick. He kept us in stitches the full two hours! And then, of course, there’s Jack’s mom – a man with a penchant for leopard print home decor and Zumba dancers. Throw in a quest to save a pet cow and a budding romance between Jack and Jill (played by, you guessed it, a boy) and you’ve got yourself one heck of a show!
An integral part of Christmas pantomimes is their use of audience participation. At Jack And The Beanstalk, audience participation ranged from a ‘Sweet Caroline’ sing-a-long to pulling unsuspecting folks from the crowd to twerk with Jack’s mom. (Thank you Miley Cyrus for making this a thing.) This is when I was blessing my lucky stars we were in the upper circle instead of the front section of the stalls. Is there anything more fear-inducing than being spontaneously called up on stage? Nope, there’s not.
Designed as family entertainment, children and adults alike will enjoy these shows. My panto partner, Emma, and I both remarked how the humor reminded us of Shrek. Christmas pantomimes are meant for kids, clearly, but there are many hilarious innuendos that will fly right over their heads.
I enjoyed this experience so much that we are going to make it our own tradition to see a different pantomime every Christmas, at least until we move away. (Unless our next move is to Ireland or Canada where Christmas pantomimes are also a holiday tradition, we won’t be able to keep up this particular tradition after we move away!)
Jack And The Beanstalk will run through January 4th, but if tickets are already sold out, you can check out some other Christmas pantomimes in London here. Most run through the first week of the new year, so you’ve still got time to see one!