The Resident goes behind the scenes of some of London’s most popular pantomimes – the hip productions of Hackney Empire and Hoxton Hall – to discover just what gets the crowd going…

Lead image: Clive Rowe in Mother Goose at Hackney Empire in 2014

Rising in popularity in the UK during the middle ages, the traditional Mummers’ Play – a folk tale based on St George and the dragon performed during the festive season – laid the foundations for pantomime as we know it today. Common elements such as vulgar humour, mythical creatures, gender role reversals, good rising above evil and stage fights all stem from this important ancient play.

Although the beginnings of pantomime stretch back even further than this, hailing from Italy’s commedia dell’arte that rose to popularity in the early modern period, characterised by masked comedic performers travelling through France and Italy telling tales to teach lessons. With a rich heritage, pantomime has remained a popular form of entertainment during the Christmas season for hundreds of years.

Hoxton Hall and Hackney Empire, both built more than a century ago with their own historic tales to tell, are now home to some of the best pantomimes in London. The creators behind this year’s shows tell us how they are bringing the theatre form into the 21st century…

red riding hood @ hoxton hall

Built in 1863, Hoxton Hall originally opened as a saloon-style music hall. Recently restored, it stands in all its former glory, with cast iron rails hugging the quaint two-tiered auditorium. This year they are reviving the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale, which hasn’t been performed in London for over 20 years.

Reprising the role of pantomime dame, actor Marc Dehaney is playing Granny Hood. He’s also the creative brains behind Hoxton Hall’s Little Red Riding Hood, choosing to pay homage to the great lost pantomime of the city.

‘With most theatres presenting a pantomime in December, I wanted to choose a title that was less performed,’ he explains. ‘Red Riding Hood reduced in popularity when theatres started to take safer routes, choosing more recognised titles, such as Jack & the Beanstalk and Aladdin.’

All the typical panto tricks will be on show – the call and response, the fourth wall and, of course, the definitive ‘It’s behind you’ and ‘Oh yes, he is’.

Of modern verses traditional pantomime, Dehaney says: ‘What we think of as traditional panto is probably very different from what people would think of a century ago as the traditions have changed throughout time. We will use classic elements that our audiences have come to expect such as old jokes that still induce a laughing fit in the crowds because they rely on clever word play. There will be modern references throughout, but the format will remain close to the original.’

Red Riding Hood runs at Hoxton Hall from 17-24 December

sleeping beauty @ hackney empire

Famous as a pantomime venue, Hackney Empire first opened in 1901, designed by architect Frank Matcham as a music hall. Iconic names such as Charlie Chaplin and Marie Lloyd have passed through the Empire’s doors and it thrived as an entertainment venue until 1963.

With the threat of demolition looming over its head by 1986, a campaign to save it saw it reopened as a performance space. Ralph Fiennes went on to play Hamlet in 1995, rebuilding its reputation for greatness.

‘This time around, the set is Game of Thrones meets Narnia meets panto,’ says Susie McKenna, Pantomime Director at Hackney Empire who decided on the tale of Sleeping Beauty for this year’s production. ‘The wicked fairy will turn into a special dragon we are currently building as a fun special effect,’ she jests.

They are now just perfecting the final details of this visual, interactive experience. Of her creative writing process, humorously McKenna says: ‘I look out for gags on the bus and on the TV; you can pick something really funny up just from overhearing people talking.


Sleeping Beauty

‘I tailor my writing to each actor’s voice and play to their strengths. I wasn’t short of inspiration this year, just looking at our political situation at the moment.’

And that, without a doubt, I’m sure everyone will agree on.

Sleeping Beauty runs at Hackney Empire from 26 November-8 January


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