Posts Tagged ‘puss in boots’

“Not Dead Yet!” – a Report on the London Comedy Forum’s roundtable on the Art of Pantomime – Greenwich Theater

December 23, 2013

I was shocked to see a newspaper article declaring that panto was dead. What? How could this be? Considering that I was struggling to find time in my schedule to fit in all of the pantos on offer in London – and occasionally struggling to even get tickets – I wasn’t sure just what sort of death they were describing. I mean, come on, panto is so popular that it’s even got a fully-rampant adult genre, with three shows (at least!) in London this December, and even two spoof pantos (“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and the “Jack and the Beanstalk” at Southwark Playhouse).

Looking closer, the article claims that it’s the lack of trouser roles, the “end of the dame,” and the movement away from “traditional” stories that mark the death knell of the “traditional” panto. (Being that this article was in the Telegraph, this was, unsurprisingly, blamed on political correctness gone mad.) Now, I’m obviously no expert on what “traditional” panto looks like – I only saw my first one in 2005 – but I hadn’t noticed a fall-off in dame action, and (unlike CAMRA’s hysteria about pubs closing) I haven’t noticed a single theater call off producing their annual panto in the last eight years. What was this article really going on about? Was there a shred of truth to their claims? In the spirit of inquiry, I decided to attend a talk hosted by the London Comedy Forum on the future of panto after a Friday night performance of Greenwich Theater’s Puss in Boots.

Speakers at the talk were Chris Abbott, author of Putting on Panto to Pay for the Pinter – a history of panto’s “golden years” (or just the 1950s and 60s, depending on how you see it), speaking for pantos past; Simon Sladen, webmaster of “The National Database of Pantomime Performance,” speaking for panto present; and Andrew Pollard, author and dame of Greenwich’s panto for the last 5 years (I think!), on behalf of Panto Future. Well, actually, he was speaking about the present as well, about the reality of creating pantos, dirty things like budgets and marketing (apparently cost of cast heavily influences how he structures his plays). And between the three of them they were a panto knowledge powerhouse. So what was their take on this subject? (I’m afraid I’ve had to muddle the answers into one voice, as I didn’t bring a tape recorder. But there was one there, and if you want, you can probably get a transcript.)

First attacked was the question of whether traditional panto is dying because of a dearth of Puss in Boots (and Dick Whittingtons). The speakers noted that there has always been an evolution in Panto stories, and that, in fact, one now “traditional” panto was originally written (around 1900) as a role for a famous male comedian. Both Snow White and Peter Pan became done as pantos after the Disney movies came out, and, they said, there is no way to escape the effect of Disney on the Panto consciousness; while Disney had no Widow Twankey in Aladdin (and truth be told neither is there one in the original story, in The 1001 Nights), the addition of a princess and a flying carpet to the Panto tale has come in response to audience expectations in the post-Disney era. Oddly, Andrew credited Disney for making his Puss in Boots possible, thanks to the raised profile the character has received courtesy of Shrek. Who knew? But the emphasis was on panto evolution; there isn’t a fixed repertoire, it is continually changing as new stories rise in the public consciousness. Lots of things have changed in the past fifty years, such as the end of scenes with water fountains and the ones that have acrobats diving through curtains (I’ll have to refer back to Abbot’s book for the proper titles of these things – I’d never heard of them before).

Next up: the supposed end of breeches/trouser/”principal boy” roles. Historically, many plays had women in men’s roles; but these days, people get their flash of leg in other ways, i.e. with Pamela Anderson as the Genie in Wimbledon’s Aladdin a few years ago. Dancers are also dressed in somewhat scantier clothing than before; and overall the accessibility of sexy fun in the theater is just much, much more than it was even fifty years ago. The numbers show that, while smaller theaters may be doing breeches roles less, that the number of people who see them per year has not been decreasing (as the tradition is continuing in the larger productions). Is it a matter of kids being uncomfortable with cross dressing, or parents wanting to shelter them from it? The consensus was no: kids saw C-Beebies, parents saw Little Britain; it’s still very much a part of British popular culture. This argument simply didn’t hold up to the numbers. Andrew said that casting in “expected” genders made for the ability to do stronger love scenes, but it’s not not being done because people won’t accept it.

Finally, what about the panto dame role? There was a general acknowledgement that this was a problem, that there were less dames in panto, but this was seen as due more to a lack of talent than a lack of desire. Pantos were being driven by celebrity casting, and the people who were taking on these roles were not familiar with the kind of skills that made a successful dame. (But later, anecdotally, I was told that some people who have done dame roles simply aren’t asked to come back. There may be more to investigate here.) Oddly, in America, where the panto is being introduced bit by bit, some uptake has been had in daming by casting a former Mrs Turnblad (the male-played mother role from Hairspray) in one of these roles. The group bemoaned the lack of training opportunities for people who want to do panto – apparently it’s generally ignored by acting schools, with only 5 or less UK theater programs offering panto as part of their curricula. In fact, when they did Aladdin at the Young Vic (the first panto I ever saw), they had to bring in “experts” to help make the panto funny – apparently skills such as timing and jokes and “magic” (and keeping children’s attention) do not come ready-bred out of RADA.

Looking at the discussion, what I heard overall was that panto was a lively, continuously evolving tradition, that takes on new forms and new technology as society continues to change. But what is decreasing is the quantity of locally produced and staffed shows. Only four major theaters in the UK write their own pantos – Hackney, Greenwich, Salisbury, and York. What is happening is that panto is becoming a corporate product, built by companies who aim to put butts in seats and turn a profit doing this. So while panto is alive and well, I think there is an argument to be made that there is a movement away from “traditional” pantos – written in a local theater with locally pointed jokes and a cast that evolves with each other and the audience year after year – to more of a cut and dry business. And I think it’s these shows that could both be drying up dame talent – because a skilled cross dressing comedian is rarely a famous actor as well – and choosing more “Disneyfied” story options. But we all agreed, when asked, “Is panto dead?”

“OH NO IT ISN’T!”

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Review – Puss in Boots – Greenwich Theater

December 16, 2013

Hot on the heels of the “Panto is Dead” non-story that cited a dearth of Puss in Boots performances as one of the bellwethers of the erosion of the art form, I was on my way to see my second Puss in seven days. I was enthused because last year’s performance at the Greenwich Theater was a real “scales falling away” kind of moment where I realized another hotbed of panto brilliance was just under my nose, yet had evaded my notice for seven years. Mr Andrew Pollard, you have been hiding your candle under a bushel basket!

I guess it would be hard to really say he’s been hiding it under a bushel basket, because he’s been writing and dame-ing at the Greenwich Theater for five or so years (six I think for just writing), but in all of that time they’ve not received a review in a single one of the majors, so little reviewers like me didn’t have the heads up we need to head to pastures new. (Hey, it’s part of what I do for YOU … provide you tips about shows you wouldn’t necessarily hear about if you just read print media.) So yay for Puss in Boots and yay for a locally produced and written panto!

To my GREAT excitement, I discovered that none other than Cutesy McHotpants from Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens – I mean, Kate Malyon – was there as our princess. Normally this kind of love interest is a throwaway role in my eyes, but with her tremendous charisma, good singing voice, and sassy charm, she was entrancing to watch as she navigated the role of girlfriend, pawn, hostage, schemer, etc. etc. She seemed to be a bit of an anchor for poor American Luke Striffler (as Sam), who was being given a hell of a ribbing by the rest of the cast, by which I mean Andrew, er, I mean, Fifi the fruit seller, who kept saying that Luke thought he was there to do some Shakespeare. Poor Like had to stare at the set and desperately try to not giggle while Kate quite successfully pretended nothing unusual was going on.

And this spirit of joy, of improvisation and bubbling happiness, just oozed infectiously through this whole production. It was embodied in Puss (acrobatic and sexy Alim Jayda), who bounced and purred and fought and was generally amazing, but the entire cast had the energy. You caught it in the songs, the audience bounced it back (like the balls they tossed around), the supporting chorines (so young!) stamped it back off the floor, the whole theater was echoing with laughter and “it’s behind you” and the whole vibe of a very very large room full of people having a good time. You plop “Live and Let Die” and a psychedelic spinning cat universe on top of all of this excitement, and it just works. This is what panto is: not big name actors and floppy jokes and an anticipatable list of slightly hacked pop songs from this year’s top ten, but brilliant improv, sparkling topical/timeless jokes (“It’s my Charlton bra – no cups and very little support”), and a total connection between the actors and the audience that goes beyond just teaching us our callback and leading a singalonga.

Oh my God, I’m raving. It’s not like I had a good time. But OH YES I DID! And oh yes you will if you can get a ticket. God d**m this was so much fun! It singlehandedly justified the other four pantos I saw before that should have left me sated but instead I went looking for more. ANDREW POLLARD YOU ARE A PANTO PUSHER and I can’t wait to see what your Beanstalk looks like next year!

(This review is for the evening performance that took place Friday, December 13th, 2013. It continues through January 5th. Many shows are sold out but there is still some availability.)