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A spectacular Panto cherry-popping

I moved to Joburg almost five years ago and it’s taken me that long to see the institution that is the annual, big Pantomime. “What?! Why?”; I hear you exclaim in utter surprise, as every other Joburger I’ve told does. Well, it’s usually a combination of Cape Town festive season, working on another show or tickets being sold out, yada, yada. I’d see the inserts on Top Billing and hoped to one day be blown away by what looked like an incredible show.  But then last year, I caught the Mnet airing of the Panto – which, honestly, didn’t agree with me and I couldn’t finish.

LJ Urbani (Dame Emmarentia), Kyra Green (Tina), Clive Gilson (Lenny Loser) & Dale Scheepers (Tokkel)
LJ Urbani (Dame Emmarentia), Kyra Green (Tina), Clive Gilson (Lenny Loser) & Dale Scheepers (Tokkel)

So, I was in two minds as I arrived at the opening of this year’s panto “Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood”. I was greeted in the foyer by a colossal, blinking Christmas tree and throngs of audience members all buzzing with excitement – so much festivity, and on a Sunday afternoon nogal. Some people, upon hearing this was my first attendance at ‘the Panto’, advised that I take it all with a big pinch of salt and get liquored up. Well, I wouldn’t say no to a wine spritzer anyway but I agreed, just in case.

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Silly Sylviana (Kate Normington) surrounded by the #RobinHoodPanto cast

Turns out the wait was well worth it! I was bowled over by this spectacle of a show with it’s OTT characters and expansive (and probably expensive) sets. The tale of Robin Hood is a familiar one – my last recollection was the Richard Gere film with the Bryan Adams pub-classic theme song. The Babes in the Wood bit – that’s a Hansel and Gretel reference. The Panto draws on those old stories but reinvents, reshapes and retells them in ways that are quite hilarious. It’s all tied up in a pretty bow with slapstick for the littlies, and groan-worthy innuendos and close-to-the bone political observations for the adults (I’m sure all the Trumpisms will get a little rewrite now…). Many a knowing moan, guffaw and “yaaaass” escaped my lips. It is difficult to just sit and watch passively – you will get involved, you will laugh and, spoiler alert, you might get wet.

I see why this is such a certain winner of a production – there are the popular, billed performers who don’t disappoint in showing their comedic chops and draw in the crowds on name alone; the newcomers who surprise with their great presence; and an incredibly talented ensemble who probably work the hardest and are in almost every scene. Kudos to all involved for steering this huge hulk of a show, especially on those double and triple show days – you make it look effortless.

Graham Hopkins (Norman the Nasty)
Graham Hopkins (Norman the Nasty)

My only real gripe would be the lack of South African songs. Two local House or Dance tracks just isn’t enough. I understand that the major media sponsors have a certain ‘demographic-specific’ playlist but if I never hear that annoying, hoedowny Ke$ha ‘Timber’ song again, it’ll be too soon! These annual Pantos are such a great reflection of South African talent, from onstage and backstage to behind the scenes and our musical geography can surely be afforded more airplay. I’d be happier if production next year kept more royalties at home and included such award-winning artists as Kwesta, AKA, Tresor, Good Luck, Timo ODV, etc. There’s a long list…

Carmen Pretorius (Maid Marian), Desmond Dube (Friar Tuck) & Izak Davel (Robin Hood)
Carmen Pretorius (Maid Marian), Desmond Dube (Friar Tuck) & Izak Davel (Robin Hood)

“Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood” runs at The Mandela at Joburg Theatre until 30 December. Janice Honeyman directs her 29th Panto, with her 16th collaboration with producer Bernard Jay. Musical direction by Rowan Bakker and choreography by Nicol Sheraton. According to those in the know, it isn’t festive season until Panto comes around and this is a good one, so book your seats before you miss what everyone will be talking about on their coastal holiday. Tickets range from R220 – R350 with more shows over the weekend. Further show information here and booking informaton here.

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