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Foreign TV stars take to British `panto'

December 23, 2006|Paul Majendie | Reuters

CANTERBURY, ENGLAND — A new wave of U.S. and Australian soap stars have found a strange and challenging outlet for their talents -- performing pantomime to British children who hiss and boo them.

Audience participation is a vital ingredient of this uniquely British theatrical tradition when classic fairy tales are given slapstick treatment.

At Christmastime every year, packed theaters across the country greet the good guys with cries of "Look behind you!" when villains creep up to choruses of disapproval.

In this mixture of Victorian music hall and Italy's commedia dell'arte, actors ham it up mercilessly, and this year's season once again proves that TV stars from abroad are willing to try their hand at British roustabout comedy.

Classical Shakespearean actor and "Lord of the Rings" star Ian McKellen gave pantomime "street cred" when cross-dressing to play a riotous Widow Twankey in "Aladdin" at London's Old Vic Theatre.

Now Henry Winkler, renowned as the leather-coated Fonz in the retro TV cult show "Happy Days," is scowling and growling around the stage in Wimbledon as Captain Hook in "Peter Pan."

Patrick Duffy, famed as Stetson-wearing Bobby Ewing in "Dallas," has switched from the oilfields of Texas to the genteel English town of Woking to play Baron Hardup in "Cinderella."

Ben Nicholas, a teenage star of the Australian soap "Neighbours," plays Jack in the cathedral city of Canterbury in "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Winkler, who took the Captain Hook role when "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff pulled out to be a judge on a reality TV show, revels in the nightly bedlam -- even if some lines are drowned out by the yells of overexcited kids.

"It's the first time I've heard of panto. And now I'm in it," he confessed before taking the role.

Now he hisses at the children: "I will come down into the audience and poison your ice creams!"

Duffy also admitted he had to investigate what pantomime was all about.

"Then I found out the context in which it is done and the history around it and the sort of maniacal attraction it has."

Australian soap star Nicholas said: "The response I get from the kids is amazing. Each performance is different from the last. It's alive and breathing."

" 'Neighbours' was great," the 19-year-old actor said of the soap he just quit. "But theater is so different. Most actors would say they enjoy theater more."

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