It just wouldn’t be winter in Doha without a dude in a dress.
‘A traditional English pantomime is a play for children. It is generally based on a traditional fairytale. And whilst it follows that plot, it goes off on all sorts of tangents that weren’t in the original story. It has stock characters, for example the leading lady is always played by a guy. And everybody on stage treats the dame as if she’s a women. Everybody in the audience understands that it’s a bloke in a frock,’ says Paul Cooper, who plays one of the miller’s sons in the Doha Players production of Puss in Boots. A pantomime veteran in both the audience and onstage, he certainly knows of what he speaks.
‘The principal boy, the romantic male lead, is always a hot babe in tights. And everybody on stage acts as if the principal boy is a boy,’ he explains. ‘Make no mistake, as an audience member, you are not fooled, not for an instance. It’s a bloke in a frock. And that’s part of the humor.’
That’s all part of the fun. Pantomime started as a traditional English endeavor, typically taking the stage around Christmas time. It’s roots are long, a giddy romp through Italian comedia dell’arte, French harlequins, and medieval mummers plays, with guys in frocks and multiple people shoved into horse costumes almost right from the beginning. The first pantomime story with a direct line to what you can still see on stages around the world (or at least wherever the British have been) hit the stage in all its singsong glory in 1773 in a production of Jack the Giant Killer in London’s Drury Lane.
‘You just get to immerse yourself in something that’s totally silly. And you know it’s for children, so you really get to get in touch with your childish playful side, and who doesn’t need that?’ says Raelene Dufresne, who plays Puss. Originally from Halifax, Canada, this is one of her first forays into the art of pantomime. ‘I play the talking magical clever cat. Standing up on two legs, not on all four. And wearing boots, in a dress. They’re my own boots that I bought so I hope they’re nice boots!’
If they’re not, the audience is sure to tell her. That’s another hallmark of the pantomime: the fourth wall is torn down, and the audience is meant to get in on the action.
‘You should not be quiet!’ says Peter Phillips, the director. ‘A scene that’s typical of it, where we have the oldest henchman that comes with this fishing net, and he’s going to capture the princess. But he sneaks in at the back of the stage and all the audience will erupt with “he’s behind you! He’s behind you!” and he’ll look over one shoulder and they’ll quickly disappear to the other side of the stage.’
‘If you’re going to be Captain Sensible leave sensible at the door, and you pick it up on your way out. You have a great time if you sit in the audience screaming “he’s behind you!”’ agrees Cooper. ‘Feel free to do what the people on stage ask you to do. If they ask you to shout out, shout out. If they ask you to contradict, contradict. Like “oh no you won’t!” “Oh yes I will!” “Oh no you won’t!,” and the audience will actually join in with that. And near the end there’s actually a song that everyone can join in, we get some of the children up on stage to join in on the song. It’s a musical, did we mention it’s a musical?’
On top of the brightly-coloured garb, that’s one of the many reasons kids are so entranced by it. Cast members say that they’ve noticed pantomimes-past have had the ability to suck even the most jaded and worldly tot away from their TVs, computers and Xboxes.
‘You’ll find the villain will threaten the audience with extra brussel sprouts or something and the audience is then encouraged to hiss and boo the villain every time he appears. And of course he rubs his hands and cackles in an evil way. You’re in no uncertain terms, this is the bad guy,’ says Cooper. ‘It’s a basic story, milks it for all the laughs you can get out of it. It’s full of corny jokes, wordplay, slapstick, stock characters that you can easily identify.’
But just because there may be a bit with a song and references to evil vegetables doesn’t mean mum and dad are going to be stuck in some sort of toddler purgatory for the duration.
‘The lines are deliberately made so that they’re played to the children, but quite a lot of it goes straight over their heads because it’s double entendres,’ says Phillips.
‘It’s good wholesome family entertainment,’ says Cooper. ‘It’s very light. There’s some music, there’s drama, there’s romance, there’s villains to boo, there’s heroes to cheer. And there’s a guy in a frock.’
The Doha Players production of Puss in Boots takes the stage Jan 25-26 at 7pm, Jan 27 at 2pm and 6.30pm, and Jan 28 at 2pm at the Doha Montessori British School. Tickets are Q60, available at THE One. For more information, call 4447 4911, 5575 5102 or email firstname.lastname@example.org