Hackney Panto

I used to write a blog about things panto related - but it felt like a lot of effort and whilst I'm not a lazy person as such: I have to enjoy writing otherwise it is hard work!  So I abandoned it!  

I wasn't going to blog ever again - but I am a religious taker of RuPaul and Michelle Visage's advice, so I got a SquareSpace website and I couldn't work out how to get rid of the blog page.  I couldn't think of anything to write either; and then I saw my second pantomime of the 2016/17 season: Sleeping Beauty at the Hackney Empire and I HAD to write!

Sleeping Beauty is one of my favourite pantomime subjects and I'm really pleased it's coming back into fashion.  Therefore a trip to Hackney was already crossing my mind, but my interest was piqued further when I read an interview, in The Stage, with the designer (Lotte Collett) about her theories behind the creation of the set and costumes.  She talked about how the set can help tell the story or create sensory overload in a child's imagination, right down to the amount of glitter that should be used and how effects should be created.  Basically, Collett was saying that despite pantomime being a genre that is constantly evolving: it works best for Hackney when it's Victorian roots and methods were respected.

I've never heard this argument before, as most modern pantomimes rely on an abundance of advanced technology and sometimes even cinema.  So, I wanted to see a Hackney pantomime with this in mind.

Collett is right: seeing the fairies through a gauze got an appreciative 'oooh' from the audience; seeing the Prince battle with moving UV thorns was genuinely exciting and watching a massive 'real' dragon rear up was much more nerve-wracking than putting on a pair of 3D glasses and watching this all unfold from a screen.

I think that in the theatre children (and a lot of adults) really don't understand how most of the effects are achieved, whereas in the movies there is understood to be generally one method: computers.  Even if SFX are created in a more hands on way for a film there is still the opportunity to re-take until it works; whereas on stage you have one opportunity and that's that.  I feel that audiences inherently understand this and therefore the risks that pantomimes take to make a dragon come to life or a fairy fly are more greatly appreciated by those watching.

I'd also read that Collett looks very closely at current pop culture and tries to reference it where possible.  In the programme, Susie McKenna (the writer and director) says that she was looking for a Game of Thrones Narnia-esque world to be created - both worlds that are a lot harsher than the traditional fairy tale landscape; but the combination really helped to create a magical and foreboding land.

Interestingly, both Narnia and wherever Game of Thrones (not a fan - soz! Although I did recognise a reference to the big throne...) is set are lands where war rages and this is the exact thing about McKenna's Sleeping Beauty that made it so exciting.

The show was about two warring kingdoms: Hackneytonia (where the Magicals (read Liberals)) live and Westminsteria (where everyone else lives).  It was a thinly veiled look at how right-wing politics have shaken up the West's political landscape this year, but was a thrilling example of how panto can be bitingly current and inherently traditional.  The fact that a few weeks ago Mike Pence was booed at a performance of Hamilton and this panto opens with Hamilton (surely a coincidence), just goes to show how on point the political satire is.

Something I am currently very troubled by in panto is the gender balance.  I saw Cinderella in Newcastle earlier this week (which I also had a fabulous time at!) but was uncomfortable with the fact that only one out of the nine roles was played by a woman.  In Hackney the split is 50/50 and I think it is the better for that.  

Also, following on from an incident a few weeks ago where a panto producer was criticised for casting too many black actors: Hackney has an uncompromising ethnic mix and  one of the fairies is played by a dwarf.  The most wonderful thing is that none of this is questioned or commented on and I strongly believe that audiences won't even consider this unless they are asked to.  Therefore, seeing such a diverse cast presented without apology can only enhance the experience for the audience. And let's face it: their lives in general!  We're so lucky to live in a country rich with diversity that the fact it even has to be commented on bugs me (so ignore a majority of this paragraph if you will!)

One of the most exciting things was that it was the Princess who saved the day - with a sword and wearing armour!  And it made absolute sense in the story.  What an amazing role model - for both boys and girls.  It sent out such a great message that you can be anything you choose and don't have to fit in a box; but again: what made it so powerful was that it was taken for granted.  There was no comment on this not being the right course of action.

This was such a thrilling and exciting pantomime and to finish me off completely the wrap up song was a Gospel number - which is one of my panto dreams!  I'm desperate to use a Staples Singers song in panto - called Oh La De Da - and when I get to the point of producing my own shows and making all the artistic choices that will be in there like a shot!  Let me tell you!  Hopefully sung by Sharon D. Clarke, who owned the stage as Carabosse in Hackney.  I mean, that woman can do anything!

Over and out!