North Van pantomimes tickle funny bone at Christmas

North Vancouver has a rich tradition of actors poking fun at themselves at Christmastime.

Pantomimes, usually performed during the Christmas season, come from a long British music hall tradition dating back more than a hundred years.

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Panto purists will tell you the plays contain a special formula: there is always a hero, a villain, a couple of sidekicks to the villain who are also evil, certain amounts of cross-dressing and men playing traditional female roles and vice versa.

In the early 1970s North Vancouver Community Players staged their first panto for the neighbourhood children at Hendry Hall. That rollicking show put the theatre company on the road to producing entertainment for the young and young-of-heart every Christmas since then. 

Sometimes, the scripts are home-grown and sometimes they are adapted from well-known English pantomimes. Lots of singing, dancing, slapstick comedy – and even audience participation – is to be expected from these entertaining shows designed for the whole family. Cheering for the good guys and booing for the bad guys is a popular treat for the audience.

Community Players’ publicist and local theatre vet Anne Marsh recalls a funny story from a past pantomime at Hendry Hall.

“To illustrate how interactive these pantomimes are, one year it featured a dog,” explains Marsh. “As part of the props, some cookies were baked in the shape of dog biscuits. Suddenly a young boy from the audience, aged around three, walked onto the stage, picked up some of the ‘dog biscuits’ and proceeded to eat them – much to the surprise of the actors!”

Another tradition is for Community Players to donate most of the proceeds (customarily $4,500) of the pantomime to charity, with an emphasis on young people.  This year the recipient charity will be Wigs for Kids – a committee of volunteers that raises money to provide custom-fitted human-hair wigs for children suffering hair loss due to cancer or other serious illnesses.

This Christmas season there will be hijinks on the high seas, when the Community Players stage their pantomime, Treasure Island, Nov. 30-Dec. 16. The actors are counting on you to help their hero Jim Hawkins race Long John Silver to the secret treasure, by singing and dancing along. Pirates, parrots and puns – oh my.

Down in Deep Cove, one of the resident theatre companies has a pantomime history that dates back to 1981, when Ann Booth and Pat Chetwynd produced their first pantomime, Cinderella, in the local community hall. 

“When trying to decide what to do for a Christmas show, a bunch of Brits were reminiscing about what they did in England and all agreed that going to a traditional English pantomime had been heaps of fun all round,” explains Marsh, of Deep Cove Stage Society’s foray into pantomime theatre.

Other Cove residents joined the panto ranks and became staples on the stage at Christmastime, including Mike Jarvis who was coerced into being a dame. Other pantomime diehards included Damian Inwood, usually a villain, and Judi Price, as the black fairy with the Madonna cone chest plate. 

“Part of the fun is you see some of your neighbours in the shows or their kids in the chorus,” says Marsh of the Cove’s community theatre. “Families like things to do together at Christmastime, hence a tradition was born and Deep Cove Stage has been doing them for 37 years with grandchildren carrying on the acting tradition.”

Deep Cove Stage’s pantomime this season is Santa in Space. The evil alien Vileun has almost achieved her desire to rule the planets – except Earth. She decides to blackmail earthlings into subservience by kidnapping Santa. Can Santa’s friends rescue her and save the world?  Find out for yourself in Deep Cove this Christmas.

Santa in Space will be staged from Dec. 14 to Jan. 5 in the Deep Cove Shaw Theatre.

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