December 29 2015
Theatres do better when panto appeals to local communities says the country’s no1 expert…
By Suman Bhuchar
THE TURKEY or nut roast has been consumed, the presents opened, the last ever episode of “Downton Abbey” and last in the current series of “Homeland” have been probably been watched, the sale bargains acquired, and if you’re feeling down in the doldrums fear not, there is still something else to enjoy…
Go, watch a Panto, of course!
It’s the hardy perennial of the festive season, and if you leave it a little, till after the holiday period this week, you can see one to beat the January blues.
The proper word is ‘Pantomime’ but nobody ever calls it that.
It is a very British form of entertainment that has evolved from the Italian ‘commedia dell arte’, the European masque tradition and the comic theatre tradition of the Harlequinade – where you take a traditional fairy tale, spice it up a bit, add a dose of music, song, slapstick comedy, cross dressing actors and voila…!
This year www.asianculturevulture.com went along to the Theatre Royal Stratford East (TRSE) to see their in-house production of “Robin Hood” and enjoyed a lot of laughs, spectacle, songs and other mischief making from the very diverse cast, led by the band of Merry Men.
It also features an extremely feisty, Maid Marion (Nadia Albina), a slightly dim and egoistical, Robin Hood (Oliver Wellington) and the drag Dame-Nurse (Derek Elroy).
Panto, explained, Simon Sladen, senior curator, modern and contemporary performance at the Victoria & Albert Museum, has been described as a celebration of local culture, and is the first thing children see, so theatres have a responsibility towards representation – which in the London Borough of Newham is very diverse.
Sladen, who also runs the website, www.celebratepanto.co.uk reveals that in the 2015 Panto season which runs from mid-November to the beginning of March, there will be 259 professional pantomime productions produced in Britain, and the top ten are as follows.
“Cinderella” takes the crown as this year’s most produced show with 50 productions, followed by “Aladdin” with 42 and “Jack and the Beanstalk” with 36. “Snow White” comes fourth with 33 productions, and the fifth place goes to “Dick Whittington” with 22 productions.
Sixth position goes to “Peter Pan” with 18 productions, whilst “Beauty and the Beast” has 10, “Robin Hood” seven productions, “Mother Goose” and the “Wizard of Oz” (four productions each) complete this year’s Top 10.
Sadly, he explained, not all theatres and productions embrace the multi-cultural ethos of casting, which the TRSE and its director, Kerry Michael who directs “Robin Hood” take seriously.
The show features a cast of 10 actors, of which seven are from black, Asian, and other ethnic minority communities (BAME, as it is in official jargonese).
www.asianculturevulture.com caught up with actor, Richard Sumitro, who plays Sherriff, or the side-kick of the nasty, Prince John (Michael Bertenshaw). Both have designs on Maid Marion.
“As an actor, panto gives you a great chance to interact with the audience”, said Sumitro, “because the fourth wall is broken, so to speak and we can talk to the audience in character.”
Sumitro points out that there are set responses, such as the stock phrases that audiences call out ‘he’s behind you’ or ‘oh, no he’s not,’ and sometimes audiences can even un/helpfully tell your character what’s happening in the plot before you have had the chance to discover that for yourself.
“There is a license in Panto to engage and interact with the story and the actors are always told that the audience is another character,” he explained.
Sumitro, who trained at the Birmingham School of Acting, also finds the singing a “great joy”.
There is great pressure now on mixing traditional panto songs with contemporary references and it’s an evolving tradition, he described.
For example, in “Robin Hood”, the evil Prince John’s song, “John’s Gone” is inspired by the style of The Specials, the two-tone and ska revival band. While the Dame Nurse sings, “Vexed Nurse” based on a very recognisable famous reggae number, “Night Nurse” performed by the Jamaican reggae musician, the late Gregory Isaacs.
This is an example of the many weird and wonderful ways of trying to make a traditional story modern.
It’s no surprise that panto has become very competitive and theatres have to employ all forms of bells and whistles to attract punters to their venues because for some of them, it is the only show they see in the year.
At the TRSE, the set is beautifully designed by Harriet Barsby and Jenny Tiramani, with many scene changes and the denouement at the end (spoiler alert) where they are locked in an underground cave and meet a dragon is a surprise to say the least!
Sladen added: “Theatres feel the pressure to up their game, so they can get the footfall to the venue.”
It (panto) has to set the standard for entertainment and be big and spectacular, as well as push the fairy tale narrative.
“It is a show for the local community so venues have to be creative and produce something for the local community.”
For the cast, the challenges are different.
Sumitro finds that the main challenge, “is the physical one. It’s a great way to lose weight and gain muscle”.
Since panto is performed in winter, it is cold and the show is so active, it gets you moving, and the schedule is extremely rigorous. There are often two shows a day, so there is a lot of running around on stage, so “rehearsing and performing a show keeps you healthy!”
‘Robin Hood’ at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, London E15 1BN.
Running till Saturday, January 23, 2pm & 7pm.
Picture (l-r): Prince John (Michael Beretenshaw) and Sheriff (Richard Sumitro). All pictures by Robert Day.