Forget Ebenezer Scrooge and the Sugar Plum Fairy. This Christmas belongs to Nanny Chit Chat and Soggyanna. These are just a few of the colorful characters audiences will get to know during Theatre Britain’s run of “King Arthur.”
Theatre Britain is the only theater company in North Texas producing authentic British pantomimes or panto. Sue Birch, Theatre Britain co-founder and “King Arthur” director, describes the panto as “a fairy tale told in the style of a melodrama,” complete with larger-than-life characters who don’t always conform to traditional gender roles.
Pantos are a staple of the British holiday tradition, and when Birch and three other expats found they couldn’t get their fix stateside, they decided to come up with their own panto.
“It came about as one of those, ‘let’s put on a show’ things,” Birch says.
It was a bare bones operation in the beginning, but the company staged its first panto, “The Sleeping Beauty,” in 1996 at Plaza Theater in Carrollton. Twenty years later, now comfortably ensconced in the Cox Playhouse in Plano, the setup is a little more deluxe, but the irreverent panto spirit is the same.
“We have families who’ve been coming year after year after year,” Birch says. “There’s a great many American families who make it their holiday tradition.”
This holiday season, Theatre Britain is staging “King Arthur,” and while the action on stage may seem madcap, the production actually adheres to several time-honored customs that govern and define a legit panto production.
“We follow all the traditional panto rules, with the dame and principal boy played by a man and woman,” says Birch.
This is the reason Nanny Chit Chat (the dame) is played by a man, and Arthur (the principal boy) is played by a woman. These gender swaps raise the hilarity factor and also foster one of the key elements of any panto: audience participation.
Birch says many Theatre Britain regulars understand the conventions of panto and the role the audience plays in advancing the action and contributing to the entertainment factor, whether it’s a reaction to certain character or a theme song to repeat in specific scenarios.
And even though what may be happening onstage seems absurd, the characters play like it’s status quo. The panto universe is enjoyably more ludicrous than our own.
“Panto takes place in a real world even though that world is perhaps a little bit strange, with talking chickens and rats,” Birch says. “But the people in it live in a ‘real’ world, and that’s what makes it funny.”
Theatre Britain’s “King Arthur” traces the classic story of Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin, Lancelot and Morgana Le Fey, the villain. The script was penned by Theatre Britain co-founder Jackie Mellor-Guin, and features an original score by Aaron Frickland.
“Jackie always has an offbeat take on the fairy tale,” Birch says. “She’s really presented us with some interesting challenges.”
The predicament for “King Arthur” involves a fire-breathing dragon, which Birch is still uncertain how to reproduce. “I’m not sure how I’m going to do that yet,” Birch says. “But that’s what makes it fun. The audience suspends their disbelief anyway.”
Theatre Britain patrons may also suspend their sense of place. The lobby is presided over by a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, and the box office manager greets guests wearing a Union Jack tie. Intermission snacks include items more common in a British concession stand than a downtown Plano playhouse, such as prawn cocktail, tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce potato chips (aka crisps).
Regardless of whether visitors enjoy British snacks or panto antics, they can be assured they’ll leave with a sense of closure, not unlike traditionally American holiday entertainment fare.
“Good always triumphs over evil, and the guy gets the gal,” says Birch. “Always a happy ending, always.”
“King Arthur” original poster by Gretchen Goetz.Theatre Britain Website >
Check out Plano Podcast’s feature on Theatre Britain’s panto: