The Portobello Panto has won famous fans in Kate Moss and Lily Allen, so who’s behind it all? Will Gore takes a look behind the curtain
Every Christmas, madness descends on Notting Hill in the form of the Portobello Pantomime. The idea for a regular Christmas production performed by and for the good people of W11 was dreamed up in the living room of Four Weddings and a Funeral actor Anna Chancellor, with the help of denizens of the Warwick Castle pub Ray Jones and Evie Doggart and Under Milk Wood director Kevin Allen, back in 1990. The first show, a nativity that somehow morphed into Cinderella, was performed at The Cobden Club, in Kensal Road, and since that inaugural effort this defiantly anarchic panto has become a staple of local cultural life, raising thousands of pounds for charity and attracting a whole Groucho Club’s worth of celebs onto the stage in the process.
The organised chaos of the Portobello Pantomime is reflected in the phone interview I embark on with the team currently in charge of this sacred institution. I’m joined down the line by long-term custodians, Antony Easton and Piers Thompson, and young writers Lexi Self and Kitty Wordsworth (who also takes on day-to-day producing duties). They talk me through the panto’s colourful history and discuss this year’s production, Dick Whit, which is running at The Tabernacle from December 16-19. A dog enters the fray with an occasional enthusiastic bark, too.
The key, it seems, to the success of the Portobello Pantomime is in its total embrace of unbridled silliness, as an anecdote from Antony perfectly demonstrates, ‘one year I appeared alongside Davina McCall,’ he says, ‘as a shepherd in a John Motson sheepskin coat turned inside out, serenading the baby Jesus, who was being played by a six-foot four guy dressed in an industrial bin liner– that’s the level we’re at.’
And Davina MacCall is by far from the only celeb to have popped up in a cameo role. The list of big names to have appeared includes Kate Moss, Tom Hollander, and Stephen Fry. And it goes on; Harry Enfield, Lilly Allen, Ray Winstone and, even, David Gest have been roped in. An annual highlight sees Mick Jones from the Clash sing ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ and last year Sienna Miller hit the headlines after starring in the final night of Peter Panto as the time-conscious crocodile. ‘I asked her during the interval if she fancied chucking the costume on and she was up for it,’ says Kitty. ‘Poor old Sienna had to wear the sweaty costume that all the other people had worn on the previous nights.’
At this point, Antony gives actors Juliet Cowan and Colin Salmon (along with his family) special mention for their contribution in recent years. With the help of Piers, he also pays fulsome tribute to Roger Pomphrey, a filmmaker and musician, who directed the show on and off for 18 years, and who sadly passed away last January. ‘Roger was much loved so it was a disaster when he died, but, like all things, the panto is bigger than the people in it and it goes on,’ adds Antony.
The show does indeed go on this year and, Lexi, in a manner his dad, the author Will Self, would be proud of, does his best to discuss the serious side of the version of Dick Whittington he’s creating. ‘Although there’s stuff in the show about where we live in west London, we’ll make it contemporary enough so people can see nods to the stories of the day,’ he says, before adding that the script will bring a modern spin on the idea of people coming to London to seek their fortune.
All of this lunacy is in the name of some very good causes, with the show raising an estimated £6,000 each year, split between the Shepherds Bush Families Project and Great Ormond Street Hospital. And this year the Portobello Pantomime is looking to raise even more by attracting sponsorship to the tune of £10,000. ‘We want someone who can partner with us and add to our charity donations,’ says Antony. ‘We don’t want to put seat prices up and we can’t do any more performances, so we’ve maxed out our income and think a local business would gain a lot from backing us.’
Towards the end of our chat, Kitty describes working on the Portobello Pantomime as like being ‘being part of a family’, and it’s a family that’s always happy to welcome newbies, be they sponsors, audience members or new additions to the company. ‘From the middle of November the Tabernacle gets taken over in the evenings by the panto so anyone can stick their head in,’ says Piers. ‘It’s always worth swinging by and saying, “I’m a brilliant choreographer, can I help?”’
Dick Whit is on at The Tabernacle, December 16-19, for more information visit tabernaclew11.com.