Pantomime season is well and truly upon us but amidst the mince pies and mulled wine lurks a challenge for the creatives behind today’s festive theatrical treats. How can they make their show a unique experience for theatregoers and just what is the magic combination that ensures the enduring appeal of this age old tradition? Jez Bond, Director and co-writer of the Park Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty (as well as Artistic Director of the building) explains the approach he’s taken to the show and how he’s dealt with the joys and challenges of the genre.
“It’s a British tradition that often contains all the theatrical elements people love – acting, singing, dancing, physical comedy, wit, magic and special effects. Of course there are also the audience participation bits which are very popular. I think the British, whilst supposedly reserved, secretly love to join in and sing and shout. Also we should remember the power of these stories; timeless fairy tales that resonate with people no matter their race, age or gender.” Bond summarises here the essence of pantomime – a great night out at the theatre, where a message is communicated to an audience through entertainment, comedy and pathos. Over the years, the name of pantomime may have become somewhat tarnished and purported to rely on cheap gags and slapstick at the expense of intelligently crafted drama – but not for Bond and his co-writer Mark Cameron.
He describes how they approached writing Sleeping Beauty “in the same way one might approach writing any new play of any genre; our starting point was to try to tell the best story we could with an intelligent dramatic narrative”. This is undoubtedly influenced by Bond’s baptism into the tradition of pantomime. Nearly everyone I know has a memory of a first or a favourite visit to a panto, but when I ask Bond his, he tells me, “Funnily enough, I wasn’t one of those people who went to pantomimes as a kid. My father is a massive theatre lover but not a fan of panto so I would see more conventional dramatic stories – like A Christmas Carol at the RSC, of which I have fond memories. I have seen and worked on a few pantos but always felt I wanted to do something a little different with the genre.” But this can’t be easy when a piece is co-written: establishing a cohesive narrative voice is always a challenge. But Bond is adamant that communication – and friendship – goes a long way to erase such difficulties. “It’s great fun; when you find a writing partner that you really click with it’s an incredibly liberating experience. It means you have someone to share ideas with. Mark and I are very close, and absolutely on the same wavelength. We have no problem trying out crazy ideas and making complete fools of ourselves in front of each other. I think that’s very important to the relationship. We are totally supportive and will go all the way with something until we reject it – and often something new and amazing will emerge as a result.”
I ask Bond about some of the crazy ideas audiences will see for themselves in the production. “We hope we’ve built a complex world for the audience to explore and engage with, including intricate characters and subplots. There is plenty of crazy physical and verbal comedy but it’s this structure that forms the background for the piece. The show has original music, its own language and more than a of dash of magic so, hopefully, all this combined will make a very different Sleeping Beauty.” They’ve even coined their own “silly catchphrases” that the cast can’t get out of their heads. It seems, then, that the supposed challenges of writing pantomime – or any genre piece – can actually work for you rather than against you?
“With panto there really are no rules [so] many of the challenges feel less significant because it’s a wonderful time of year and a show like this, with music and magic, really puts the spirit of Christmas into everybody.” As for the future of pantomime, for Bond it’s all about “Park Theatre’s redefining of the genre!” But in seriousness, he adds, “No, really, I don’t know – that’s the exciting thing. Who knows how things will change over the years. That’s the exciting thing about theatre; it can and does adapt in order to stay relevant and punchy.”
And if all else fails, the Park Theatre has surely struck gold by casting the theatre’s resident furry performer Hazel the dog in a lead role. They might say never work with children or animals but when the canine in question has her own twitter account (@ParkTheatreDog), you’re in pretty safe paws.
Catch Sleeping Beauty at the Park Theatre until 19 January 2014. For tickets and more information, visit the Park Theatre website.
Image of Jez Bond by Ed Sykes