Potted Panto presented by James Seabright
What is it?
A unique take on the most British of Christmas traditions, this (mostly) two-hander pantomime aims to summarise the six (or twelve) Great British Pantomimes in just eighty minutes.
What is it about?
“What’s your favourite thing about Christmas?” performers Jeff and Dan ask the audience during the show’s opening. “Hannukah!” my friend and I chorus, as loudly as we can. We’re Jewish, used to being left out at Christmas, but ready to lean into the seasonal spirit and have some fun. My friend has never been to a pantomime before. I went to my first pantomime at the age of 22, and have a deep love for subversive performance, dirty-in-jokes-for-the-adults, political satire, and drag. My friend is in for a treat. We are pumped.
Over the next eighty minutes, two white men act out the six (or twelve, they can’t decide) great pantomime stories. More of a sketch comedy duo than a panto troupe, Jeff Turner and Dan Clarkson spend more time arguing over the “laws of panto” than letting their audience simply enjoy the stories. There is some back-and-forth and very predictable mishaps in which Dan misunderstands the rules explained to him. He expresses a childlike joy at learning how the call-and-response with the audience works, which makes us giggle, until it goes on far too long and he insists “It never gets tedious!” (Oh yes it does). Most of their gags operate this way, wearing on far too long and leaving me cringing in my seat, silently begging them to just get on with the show.
Their two stagehands (Ensemble? Extras? It’s not clear) are two young, fresh-faced actors who have one line each and are quickly shoved out of the limelight just in case they are to get any grand ideas about being playful storytellers themselves.
How did it make me feel?
Dick Whittington is the one great pantomime story I am entirely unfamiliar with, so I enjoyed that they took the opportunity to parody our current (“let’s see how tomorrow goes, shall we?” they quip) Prime Minister, until Jeff points out “I’m being Boris Johnson. I’m a dick. Get it?” It’s not funny if you explain the joke. Throughout the show, Jeff and Dan explain almost every joke that is made, which drastically underestimates the audience’s intelligence and, quite honestly, spoils the fun. Political satire in pantomimes is there for the adults – the kids don’t get it, but the adults do, and that’s part of what makes us laugh.
A particularly uncomfortable aspect of the performance is the sheer lack of self-awareness. A white man can only make a joke about white male privilege if he is admitting that he is part of the problem. Joking about Boris Johnson’s white male privilege and then repeatedly subjugating your only female cast member – including a cheap shot at her having “gone to drama school for three years for this” is just mean. This could have been funny if she’d had the last laugh at the end, but she doesn't. She doesn't even get to hold the sign with the lyrics on during the big finish. She is another painful example of white men taking centre stage and shunting the women to the sidelines. Hardly subversive or satirical. A joke about Trump not respecting women is also particularly uncomfortable, especially considering the two scenes in which they tease Prince Charming perhaps not non-consensually kissing the Princess as she sleeps (which I fully thought would instead take those moments to allow Sleeping Beauty and Snow White to have their own moment in the light) they merely use this as an opportunity for more slapstick violence, and ultimately, of course, a kiss. To make a joke about not respecting women after this is tasteless and cheap. Even more tasteless is that they trash-talk (briefly, but notably) another London theatre, whose current panto has been directed by a woman of colour. Tasteless, cheap, and bafflingly un-self-aware.
This production attempts to subvert the traditions of panto and make it accessible for those who didn’t necessarily grow up with them. This, I would have appreciated and enjoyed. Instead, it relies on toilet humour and slapstick for laughs in the place of intelligent satire and observational comedy.
Potted Panto is playing at Southwark Playhouse until the 11th January 2020.
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