Monday, 7 January 2013

A Grand Day Out

Most holiday customs here needed no explanation for me. Pine sapling in living room, check. Presents under it, check. Santa is a check, although children here would say Santy or Father Christmas, and he's considered to live in Lapland rather than at the North Pole.

Sometimes, however, I encounter customs unique to this side of the Atlantic, unfamiliar to most North Americans – puddings, mince, paper hats, the "Christmas Number One" and Christmas crackers. And on our first Christmas here, when our neighbours started asking me about taking The Girl to the panto, I discovered you can only smile and nod so long before admitting you have no idea what anyone’s talking about. Turns out the panto – short for pantomime – is a holiday institution here, a kind of vaudevillian musical-comedy-theatre for childen and fondly-remembered part of most childhood Christmases.

This year tickets booked up so quickly that we had to wait to see the show playing yesterday – Twelfth Night, as luck would have it -- but she loved it as much as ever.  We first went to a great indoor market in Dublin, the delightfully-named “Ferocious Mingle,” where The Girl got the added bonus of watching a silent Laurel-and-Hardy film while a man played piano in front of the screen. I have complained in the past that it was very difficult to see old films in Ireland, so this was doubly unexpected.

Then it was time for the main event. Like most pantos, it told a loosely adapted fairy tale – Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Robin Hood and, in our case, Aladdin -- and contains the following vital ingredients:
1.) A boyish leading man;
2.) The princess he falls for;
3.) A hammy villain, usually with black clothes and facial hair;
4.) One or more middle-aged men playing middle-aged women;
5.) A couple of buffoonish guards;
6.) A backup group of singers and dancers to provide a Greek chorus. 

Pantos often feature major national actors taking a break for fun, as well as local pop stars and Ireland’s own reality-show performers enjoying their fifteen minutes. Tween-heartthrob boy bands often end up in pantos as well – one show this year featured “Jedward,” the identical Irish teenage boys John and Edward, who are Ireland’s answer to Justin Bieber. Those inevitably play heroes, of course, but the villain is usually the real star, drawing the biggest names and the best songs.

While pantos cater to children, with broad acting, bright costumes and vaudeville comedy, they also feature dialogue laced with humour aimed over children’s heads at the parents – racy double entendres, pop-culture references and sharp political jabs, the last more biting than usual in the few years since Ireland’s economic meltdown. 

If you ever take your child to a panto, though, be prepared to effectively tread water in a rippling sea of screaming and laughing children, getting drinks and food by gesturing wildly to the aisle vendor and handing money to the parent next to you, who hands it to the next parents down. Thankfully, everyone’s honest – even if someone wanted to run away with your money, they wouldn’t get away very quickly.

As the panto ended and families flooded out the doors into the night, The Girl noticed we were walking behind two of the headlining stars, looking like any two young women on the wet streets of Dublin again, except for bits of costume still poking out from under their ordinary clothes.

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