Five things I learned at my first ever panto

The cast of Robin Hood at The Cresset Theatre in PeterboroughImage copyright
Chris Brudenell

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The cast of Robin Hood at The Cresset Theatre in Peterborough

In my 24 years on this planet, there are many things I have gone out of my way to avoid, like engaging in small talk, eating quinoa and reading my student loan statement.

And seeing as it’s Christmas, there’s one last thing I had never felt I needed in my life… the British tradition of going to a pantomime.

As someone who finds musicals just about bearable, I knew that a man dressed in a horse costume and a poor rendition of an Abba song probably wouldn’t be for me.

But this year was the one when I finally had to give in and buy a ticket – because my best friend decided to star in one.

So, full of festive spirit (and a little apprehension), I made the trip from London to Peterborough to see Robin Hood, and here are all the things I learned:

1. The pantomime dame is an icon

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Chris Brudenell

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Nurse Gertie Glucose, played by Zach Vanderfelt

Nurse Gertie Glucose – a midwife who looks after a young Maid Marian – is The Cresset Theatre’s pantomime dame and was my panto highlight, mostly because her sass levels were a solid 11/10.

Her hair and make-up skills could put some Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestants to shame, as could her catchphrase: “You’re gorgeous, I hate you!”

Gertie also had some incredible costume changes during her time on stage – around six new outfits in all – which even beat Katy Perry’s effort at the 2017 VMAs.

2. Audience participation is… encouraged?

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Chris Brudenell

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Coronation Street actor Will Cochrane as hype man Will Scarlet

Normally, talking during a theatre performance leads to lots of stern looks and hushing from your fellow attendees. But in panto land, it seems anything goes.

One minute there was booing, the next cheering, then a “Legend of Sherwood” chant, accompanied by everyone in the crowd having to get up and do the Macarena.

I had to wait patiently for my first chance to shout “It’s behind you!”, when a dragon chased Robin Hood (???).

Perhaps the best part, though, was when members of the audience were given a shout out by Will Scarlet, the official Robin Hood hype man.

This included my friend Jemma (not the one in the panto – a different friend) being brought up on stage so Will could rifle through her ‘handbag’ in a segment that was most definitely for the mums and dads only.

3. Pantos deviate somewhat from the original story

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Chris Brudenell

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Izzy Locke as Pandora

I had a sneaking suspicion about this one, mainly because I knew my friend Izzy was playing a witch called Pandora, and that character certainly wasn’t present in the Disney version of Robin Hood.

Also, with it being Christmas, I wasn’t sure how festive it would be to have Friar Tuck nearly hanged on stage, or how they would recreate the bit when everyone thinks Robin has been killed by some archers when trying to escape Prince John’s castle.

Mind you, all the main stuff was in there, like Robin rescuing Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham being a bit evil, and King Richard returning to reclaim his title.

But as someone who called Nottingham their home for four years, I couldn’t get behind the set design for Sherwood Forest involving sparkly trees, nor the lack of actual geese at the Goose Fair.

4. The song selection is totally random

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Chris Brudenell

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Mitch Hewer as Robin Hood

I’m pretty sure there are only two types of places in the world where you can hear renditions of Abba’s Money Money Money, a song from The Greatest Showman and Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up together – a karaoke bar at 2AM and, of course, the panto.

The thought behind this production’s song selection was probably that there would be something for everyone. Nevertheless, I really struggled to get over Little John dancing to I’ve Got A Feeling by The Black Eyed Peas.

I did spend some time thinking about whether there were any more appropriate songs that could have made it onto the tracklist, perhaps to replace The Grand Old Duke of York, which came quite late on in the second half and took me by surprise, mostly because York is quite far from Nottingham.

5. Everyone loves to hate a baddie

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Chris Brudenell

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Lawrence Stubbings plays the Sheriff of Nottingham

Despite the best efforts of Will Scarlet and his Merry Men to try and get some cheers from the audience, it was the pantomime baddie that everyone saved themselves for.

Every time the Sheriff of Nottingham came on stage with one of his “useless” sidekicks, he was greeted with huge boos from the audience and some classic baddie music, just in case you were in any doubt about what to expect.

I also thought he’d get involved with a bit more evil activity than he actually did – his locking up of Maid Marian for a bit didn’t exactly scream jeopardy.

So when he got his punishment, which was being cursed with falling in love with pantomime dame Gertie, it kind of felt like he didn’t really deserve it, but I suppose it is good to get kids on board with the idea of retribution from an early age.

….But would I go to the panto again?

This is a question I pondered on the drive home, because despite my protestations I did actually have an enjoyable afternoon.

I could be open to the idea of giving it a go again, but on the condition I bring along some panto enthusiasts to rid me of my inner Grinch (and maybe plug my ears during the musical numbers).

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