It is a Christmas tradition in certain parts of the world, including at Braeburn School, to celebrate the season with a pantomime theatrical production.
Braeburn’s selection this year was Beauty and the Beast (B&B) which was staged this past weekend at its Gitanga Road campus, and most assuredly was nothing like either the Disney movie version of the story or the traditional one.
There were traditional elements to the show however. The story was typically a fairy tale featuring a “Principal boy” which is always played by a female (Shelina Allport) and a “Dame” which is usually played by a man. But here was the first major departure from tradition that director Charlotte Everest dared to make in this wildly inventive pantomime.
Ms Everest made several delightful departures from panto’s centuries-old traditions in B&B. For one, the Dame was a female, a truly eccentric Madame Fifi (Jazz Mistri). Another was the introduction of both live and recorded pop music, none of which was “Christmasy”, but all of which was fun to watch. It was especially fun as the youngsters (both on and off stage) were clearly delighted with the ebullient energy that got unleashed, thanks to Madam Fifi’s frivolity and flamboyant style of commanding everyone to get up and dance along with her.
What Ms Everest did not change were “the goodies” and the “baddies”, headed by Flora, the sweet Good Fairy (Jenny Childs) and Belladonna, the cackling Bad Fairy (Joanna Hechle). Bella’s a real schemer and quite a scary bad witch who nearly succeeded in toppling the reign of Ms Good Fairy as well as the hope of the Prince.
There was genuine suspense in this sinister battle between good and evil. Fortunately, the goodies had a secret weapon in Madame Fifi who you just knew had to ultimately win the day. But in the process, Braeburn’s youthful director succeeded in sucking us all in (including adults and toddlers), into the battle that Bella and her minions nearly won.
Ms Everest was only at Braeburn on a three month residency. She was at the school just long enough to direct her first pantomime and shake up tradition sufficiently to turn it upside down.
One reason she got away with revolutionising the old model without ruffling too many traditionalists’ feathers is because the majority of cast members, especially the young ones loved her contemporary approach. Also, she is a hands-on professional who took charge of the sound, lights and visual projections as well as directing. That meant special effects like the timing of thunder and lightning (signaling activation of Bella’s curse) was impeccable as were the snappy set and scene changes.
Ms Everest did not give the audience a moment to have our attention lapse since the momentum of theatrical action never waned. There wasn’t a single clumsy, time-consuming set change, of the kind that lead audiences to lose what thespians call that essential “suspension of disbelief”. That’s the element of theatre that inspires someone to get sucked into the alternative reality that theatre ideally aims to draw every audience into thoroughly.
This pantomime was most effective in holding us captive for the duration, even though the audience on Sunday afternoon seemed to be mainly toddlers, moms and pre-teens. That’s to say the show was enchanting and spicy at the same time. The moments of adult humour were sufficiently cloaked in double entendre to keep little ones from being shocked or baffled by off-colour jokes or even slams at rival schools.
The show stealer of the night was undoubtedly Madame Fifi, who not only led the charge through the Fearsome Forest, into the enchanted castle where the Prince had been transformed into the Beast by Bella’s curse. Fifi also led everyone in dance, including when she managed to get the majority of kids up on stage to sing and dance to a simple happy song. Belle (Kate Snow) was also a sweetheart and her sassy self-centred sisters, Britney (Samantha Mihajlovic) and Whitney (Razan Gubara) were bossy but beautiful.
All told, Beauty and the Beast had multiple campy moments, as a traditional pantomime is meant to have. But this B&B mixed those moments in with so much joyful modernity that it was just fun watching this inter-generational cast share a festive spirit that was well-suited for the upcoming holidays.