If you were taken to a pantomime as a child, there are probably three scenes that stand out in your memory (and which – at a guess – probably still make you giggle when you recall them). I’m talking about the ‘ghost bench’ gag, the ‘decorating scene’ and the ‘laundry scene’: each different in their way, but each equally iconic.
Pantomime scripts inevitably change to reflect the era in which they are performed, but these set pieces – carefully constructed to get the maximum audience reaction – never seem to age.
The ghost bench
The ghost bench scene – where three comic characters sit on a bench and sing a song whilst waiting for the audience to spot a ‘ghost’ (substitute yeti, gorilla or zombie, depending on which panto and your director’s taste in scary characters) is the scene that gave us the classic line: “Behind you!”
There’s good reason why that line sticks in our minds: the ghost bench scene contains every element required for great comedy. It has tension, action, progression and the all-important element of surprise, not to mention a wonderful punch-line at the end (when the ghost that has scared everyone offstage runs away himself, having finally been confronted by the Dame).
But is it OK to experiment with such a well-loved scenario? A few years ago when the novelty pop hit Gangnam Style was storming up the charts, we took a deep breath and tried a different ending. The ‘scaries’ chased all the comic characters off stage and – satisfied that they had the stage to themselves – launched into the famous Gangnam dance.
The joke worked because everyone knew the song so well, but these scenes are so finely tuned for laughs, playing with tradition is always a risk. That’s why I feel in most circumstances it’s better to go with the ‘traditional’ version of the ghost scene … it may be unoriginal, but no matter how many years we repeat it, it still gets a big laugh.
The decorating scene
This one is an absolute classic, but with business that includes setting up a trestle table and hanging wallpaper onto the stage flats, it can be a challenge if you’re working on a small stage.
Properly performed, the decorating scene is visual comedy at its best, but from the early choreography with trestles and planks to the final showdown with brushes and paste, the scene needs discipline and perfect timing if it is to be really successful.
A great example is the sketch performed by a young Norman Wisdom and Bruce Forsyth at the London Palladium, currently available on YouTube. If you’re choreographing your own set piece and possibly updating it with some modern touches, it’s still worth checking out classic examples to be found online, as you can learn so much about comedy timing.
The laundry scene
Most laundry scenes feature a washing machine with a porthole-type door into which the Wishee Washee character accidentally falls, to be replaced by a ‘shrunken’, child-sized version when he is rescued from the wash cycle. There’s also a mangle for the moment when Wishee gets caught in the rollers and is fed back onstage – to great comic effect – as a one-dimensional, cut-out figure.
However, while we can all recognise a washing machine, very few members of the audience will be familiar with a mangle, so there’s a risk that this great gag will soon lose its relevance for a modern audience. In a recent production of ‘Aladdin’ we created our own set piece, with business developed around a line of washing bowls and a stooge ‘volunteer’ from the audience. The scene – which substituted the ‘mangle’ business – worked exceptionally well and proved that if you can provide an acceptable substitute, it can be okay to dispense with traditional props and stage business in certain circumstances.
The three scenes described above are fun to rehearse and, once the timing is perfected, they can provide the biggest laughs of the whole show. Whether we stick with the traditional way of performing them or we’re forced to update them because of changing fashions, it’s likely that audiences will still be laughing at these treasured comedy classics in fifty years’ time.
Meanwhile if you’re looking for a fresh, original panto script to performance, why not check out our script bank at http://www.scenethreecreative.co.uk?