Why British Christmas pantomimes are loved by French audiences

‘He’s behind you!’ needs no translation for French people flocking to see the colour and physical gags of a local panto

Secret Pantomime Society in Toulouse performed Pinocchio earlier this year; Les Troubadours Britannique de Limoux put on Robin Hood in 2018

The traditional Christmas pantomime, often put on by Britons living abroad, is attracting a wider audience as more and more French people enjoy the colour and fun.

While Hollywood films can come with subtitles for non-English speakers, amateur pantomime groups need no such support to ensure that the people coming to their shows are having a great time.

In Toulouse: ‘French people love it!’

“Probably more than half of our audiences now are French,” said Martin Walker, a member of Toulouse-based Secret Pantomime Society (SPS).

“They love the fact that we are breaking down the wall between the audience and the people who are on stage.”

SPS is part of a thriving panto network in south west France, and has been entertaining audiences almost every year since it launched in 1984.

“It’s quite an achievement to reach 40 years, especially for an amateur group,” said Mr Walker, who moved from Congleton in Cheshire to France in 1997 with his aeronautical job.

He first got involved with panto in 2000, making his stage debut in 2008. To celebrate the big 40, the troupe is staging a special version of Aladdin.

“It is going to be the biggest one we have ever done because we go into five different pantomimes. We kick the show off with five different dames on stage,” he said.

When asked how the annual show goes down with locals, he said: “French people love it, even though it’s in English, because it’s so colourful and musical.

“We might have started off as a little pantomime just among the British community, but now we’re truly international.”

Aladdin runs from January 27 to February 3 at Théâtre Musical de Pibrac. Secretpantosociety.com

In Limoux: ‘Pantomime is inclusive theatre, it’s visual and fast’

Another group is hard at work on its Christmas show. Launched in 2013, Les Troubadours Britanniques de Limoux (The British Troubadours of Limoux) was created so people living in the area could indulge their love of amateur theatre.

Trudy McGilvray, 65, joined after moving to France in 2016.

“I’m passionate about the whole art of theatre and making it inclusive and sharing it with people,” she said.

“There’s a large British contingent in the area but for our last dress rehearsal, we performed to the local lycée and we had more than 100 students come,” she said.

“We also do a French potted panto version at fêtes.

“It explains the eccentricities of the dame being a man, but playing a woman, and so on.”

Like SPS, the Troubadours has an international cast, with a core of English and Welsh players but also American, French, Finnish, German and Dutch members.

The Troubadours’ pantomime this year is Puss in Boots.

Ms McGilvray has no concerns when it comes to language barriers between the global cast and the audience.

“Pantomime is inclusive theatre, it’s very visual and fast. There’s music and dancing so it transcends nationality.”

Puss in Boots runs from December 8-10 at Le Théâtre dans les Vignes in Couffoulens. tbdl.fr

In the Ariège: ‘Our Cinderella is full of visual gags’

A more recent addition to the France-based pantomime family is The Tarn Players.

This amateur drama association, founded by veteran actor Donald Douglas, is based in Les Cabannes, in the Ariège.

Launched just after lockdown, the group put on a Christmas revue last year, with songs, poems and mini-plays.

It followed it up with a full play and, when asked what the next project should be, “unanimously everybody said we want to do a pantomime”, said chairman Phill Hill.

Rehearsals are well under way for their Cinderella panto.

“We are an older theatrical troupe, and so needed to find something we could cast within the group and that would also work for our audience, who are mostly retired people, or over the age of 50,” Mr Hill said.

The 57-year-old, originally from Cwmbran in Wales, said the group of passionate amateurs pride themselves on putting on a good show.

“We are trying to make our Cinderella visually entertaining so if French people come, they will see a lot of visual gags.

“They won’t actually have to follow every piece of dialogue because it’s going to look colourful, bright and fast-moving.”

Cinderella runs from December 15-16 at the Théâtre Le Colombier in Les Cabannes. thetarnplayers.fr

Pantomime has roots in France too

It is often believed pantomime is a British import to France, a cultural injection for Britons living abroad who miss the dash of festive colour.

The panto tradition also has French roots, however, starting with jugglers performing at medieval village fairs and continuing in the local theatres that replaced them.

There, the 16th-century Italian art form Commedia dell’Arte flourished, giving rise to characters including Harlequin and Pierrot.

In 18th-century London, the knockabout Harlequinades, a combination of slapstick and music, delighted audiences for around 100 years.

In Paris, Jean-Gaspard-Baptiste Deburau, owner of the Théâtre des Funambules, became one of the country’s most celebrated pantomime performers of the 1800s.

Both countries then took the art form in different directions.

France embraced comedies of manners, while in Victorian England, a change in the law allowed dialogue to be spoken for the first time in theatres that did not have a royal patent.

It meant fairytale characters, principal boys and dames were soon woven into plays, evolving into what we now know as pantomime.

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