In Great Britain this year, the Christmas pantomime season has coincided with the general election, which means that the politicians have been busy being Santa Claus and the panto stars busy being Fairies.

To Americans, the word “pantomime” conjures a foreigner in white face and white gloves silently building an imaginary wall; but there is no mime in British pantomime—a noisy, gender-bending slapstick holiday from normality, a call to the infantile, to vulgarity, to bad manners, and, naturally, to bad acting. In panto’s world-turned-upside-down, travesty rules, and license is the name of the game: The audience is free to hiss the villain and shout up to the stage; the actors are free to give as good as they get from the paying customers, and sometimes throw things at them.

High Camp, Celebrity-Packed

The whole gleeful, pinwheeling mash-up—fairy tales, pantomime dames, pantomime animals, singalongs, rudery, big hair, big costumes, double entendres—taps into the misrule of Elizabethan festival saturnalia as well as absorbing into its contemporary theatrical hodgepodge elements of commedia dell’arte, masques, harlequinades, and music hall, which in the late 19th century the Brits transformed into today’s high-camp, celebrity-packed extravaganza for young and old.

Pantomime’s stage-managed fiasco is particularly challenged these days by Great Britain’s political one. With Brexit, over the last three years, British public life has been one long season of make-believe. It’s hard to kick out the jams when you have no leg to stand on. “Oh, no it’s not!” “Oh, yes it is!”—the ritualized pantomime argy-bargy between audience and actors—sounds too much like the Parliamentary caterwauling of Leavers and Remainers. In an age of delirium, panto’s madness is no match for the real world’s carry-on.

Nonetheless, pantomime’s topsy-turvy high jinks has its own piquant environmental advantages. Scientists tell us that now the sea world as well as life on earth is losing oxygen. We can’t seem to cut carbon emissions fast enough. Laughter increases the intake of oxygen to the brain, and gets the endorphins going downstream. Even if pantomime is the lowest of low comedy, there’s still something life-enhancing and honorable in its mission. Courage wants to laugh; so everywhere around the winded British Isles these days, pantomime is doing brisk business.

If Great Britain seems to have more or less lost the plot, Goldilocks and the Three Bears (at the London Palladium) certainly has. Part vaudeville, part circus, part musical production number, and all camp, Goldilocks and the Three Bears asks the philosophical question: Do actors need attention so badly they have to get dressed up like this? The master of this three-ring costume party is the droll, doe-eyed Julian Clary, soon to be touring in Born to Mince, his one-man show, and the author of, among other books, A Young Man’s Passage.

Pantomime is the lowest of low comedy, but there’s still something life-enhancing and honorable in its mission. Around the winded British Isles these days, it’s doing brisk business.

You get the picture. Clary, who is the current owner of Noël Coward’s Goldenhurst Farm in Kent, also has “a talent to amuse.” But unlike the closeted Master, who sold a hetero matinee-idol persona, Clary is an entrepreneur of his effeminacy, a light item whose humor is as gently sidewinding as his voice. Here, he is cast as “the Ringmaster,” the mannequin in charge. “I’m contractually obliged to change my costume,” he says at one point, hard-shouldering the audience and traipsing into the wings.

Clary’s fabulous get-ups (designed by Hugh Durrant)—there are 11 changes in all—are to fabric what Fabergé eggs are to clay: a marriage of folly and beauty, the product of an antic imagination run riot. Clary appears before us variously as a living Russian Constructivist sculpture, a unicorn complete with a pink pony’s tail, and a seal with a beach ball on his head and flippers on his hands; one dress seems to be a walking rabbit hutch.

Clary strikes a languid pose; his stillness plays well against the rococo outrageousness of the costumes as well the manic panto capering going on around him. On stage, Clary is slow to kindle, and almost never burns. He is a tall drink of lukewarm water who never presses an audience, which is part of his laconic charm. With a world-weary twinkle in his beady eyes, Clary takes in the folly of others and himself. An actor refers to him, in his unicorn outfit, as “my little pony.”

Julian Clary, a tall drink of lukewarm water, never presses an audience, which is part of his laconic charm. There’s a world-weary twinkle in his beady eyes.

“I’ll have you know I’m a muscular stallion,” he says, inspecting his manicured fingers. There’s not much emphasis in his soft voice; he appears not to care much about anything. His whimsical detachment is part of the joke. At one point, Clary sashays along the edge of the stage and looks down at the front rows. “Let’s see who has been foolish enough to purchase a ticket,” he says, smiling with cold teeth. And when Goldilocks bolts out of the wings and walks up to him, Clary gives her a dry wash and turns to us: “No music, no fanfare—she can almost be in a Brecht play.”

Julian Clary (the Ringmaster) and Paul O’Grady (Baron von Savage) in Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium.

The Palladium is close to the West End, whose boulevard shellac is all too apparent. The physical production is lavish and expert. In this pantomime, the audience may not get sweets thrown at it, but it gets eye candy galore. The well-drilled, well-dressed chorus decorates the soi-disant story, strutting its stuff to “42nd Street,” “One” (as in singular sensation), “Be a Clown.” (There’s even an intolerable five-minute medley composed of famous lines from great Broadway show tunes sung in drag—natch.)

A Lush and Relentless Spectacle

A whole zoo of pantomime animals is also on parade. Besides the three pear-shaped, jelly-bellied brown bears, giraffes stick their heads out from the wings, zebras prance across the stage—a behemoth elephant even fills the proscenium arch and thrusts its swaying trunk out to spritz the stalls.

When you add to the Palladium fun machine a roller-skating act, a motorcycle act, a magic act, a tight-rope walker, some juggling, and a ventriloquist, you have a lush and relentless spectacle but not a robust theatrical encounter. Pantomime is supposed to take liberties, not look as if it were Liberty’s. The audience is at once bedazzled and becalmed, distracted by play but rarely at play. The cumulative effect is like being tickled to death.

At the opening, the all-smiling, all-singing, all-hard-working cast promise “we’ll shine for you”; but only toward the end of the evening, when misrule starts to assert its impudence, does the show reach full un-boundaried panto candle-power. Clary stands up to the scurrilous, whip-toting Baron von Savage (Paul O’Grady), who has kidnapped the three bears—“Boooo!!!!!”—and gives him a forked-tongue lashing. “You’re a liar. You’re a cheat. You’ll do anything to get what you want. Maybe you should be the next prime minister.”

The Frontiers of the Marvelous

And later, after a bit of strenuous romping, Nigel Havers, a celebrated Shakespearean actor cast here in the less taxing role of Daddy Bear, removes his bear’s head, mops his handsome brow, and peers into the 2,286-seat auditorium. “If Prince Andrew is in the audience,” he says, holding out his hand, “this is sweat.”

After nearly three hours of huffing and puffing, the panto finally gets its mojo working with a rousing bit of slapstick hokum at the grand finale. Dressed in a T-shirt announcing HUMAN CANNONBALL and sporting a cannonball as a headdress, Clary grips a golf club—an implement to which he’s clearly a stranger—and sashays forward to tee-up an imaginary golf ball as he sings, “If I were not in the Big Top / a golfer I would be.…”

With the club, he then whacks the backside of Joey the Clown, who has marched out beside him with a pail and announced that if he wasn’t in the Big Top, he’d be a window cleaner. And so it goes: each actor saunters on with a new ambition and a new prop—a frying pan, scissors, cricket bat, boxing gloves, bucket. As they sing, they swing. Soon the air is thick with flying objects. The players dive, duck, dodge, flail, poke, prod, bash, and even hit themselves.

For a few transporting minutes, we are delivered to the frontiers of the marvelous. The stage becomes a sort of Rube Goldberg machine. At a certain speed all things disintegrate, so, when the players repeat the acrobatic routine in double time, inevitably they are transformed into dervishes of desire whose bodies at speed morph before our eyes into the surreal. The pratfall has always been a personification of hope: the clown may fall on his face, but he always bounces back. Here, in its rollicking caprice, panto mayhem briefly becomes visionary metaphor—a poetic daydream of resilience in a collapsing universe.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears runs at the London Palladium through January 12, 2020.

John Lahr is a columnist for AIR MAIL