What is it about theatre? Good and bad; amateur and professional; cast, crew, and audience; why do we do it? It’s about love and truth and heartbreak and fun and the simple thrill of telling a good story. In Belvoir’s second reopening, the Boomkak Panto brings together the time-honoured traditions of theatre with a fresh, contemporary perspective as a celebration of the very best of theatre-making.
Boomkak is a tiny little town that boasts scorching dry heat, an old tomato sauce factory, and the only Cretian-Serbian-Egyptian-Persian restaurant in Australia. But, like all good things, it’s under threat by developers to extract every last ounce of profit from its soil. So the people of Boomkak are going to hold a fundraiser, a panto, to raise money and garner media attention to save their town. And then another hammer falls and a bushfire sweeps through, turning nearly everything they’re fighting for into ash. What’s the point? Of the panto, of the town. What’s holding it together? Love, of course!
Virginia Gay’s pantomime fits into an old tradition of farce, in-jokes, illogical coincidence, and silliness but it goes deeper – a panto within a panto. Not just men in dresses but explicit discussion of gender and non-binary identity, not just stories in foreign lands but an actual diversity of ethnicity and culture, not just constructed obstacles but real-world events and people impacting what’s being put on stage. With co-director Richard Carroll, Gay has brought what audiences (and casts and crews for that matter) have being crying out for to the stage: a production that honestly and generously engages with the world today and with choreo!
The heart of this production was in the characters and the sincerity of their portrayal by a star-studded cast. You’ve got the boofhead and villain rolled up in Rob Johnson, the migrant single mother Parnia (Deborah Galanos) and the daughter she lives vicariously through Yazmin (Mary Soudi), the town councilman and Aboriginal Elder Darren (Billy McPherson) and his step-child Zoe (Zoe Terakes) just muddling through small town life, and the white artists John (Toby Truslove) and Alison (Gay) who see Boomkak as the performative alternative to inner-city living. They were also supported by sounding board and backing musician Hamed Sadeghi. Each of them are odd and awkward, with big personalities that bump up against each other to generate the kind of familial tension most beloved in small communities. But this cast had a remarkable cohesion that felt worn-in and welcoming, especially in Alison or Zoe’s pointed side-eyes to the audience.
Gay is a national treasure for her charisma and unshakeable enthusiasm, her love for Australian theatre was palpable, even in a monologue against the chaos of the panto. And you can see a similar kind of energy in Terakes in how captivating and engaging their performance was. The audience was wooing Yazmin and being crushed by her rejection alongside Zoe the whole way. Truslove and Galanos equally endeared themselves to the audience for their deeply convincing lack of self-awareness – Truslove as a mediocre white man and Galanos as an overly-demanding mother but both with a flare for the theatrical.
Alongside the cast, the Boomkak Panto was the full opera. Michael Hankin outdid himself with the set design by creating a minutely detailed outdoor space and then populating it with outrageous costumes that incorporated sequins, capes, rubber glove bustles, and, of course, fringe. The lighting design by Jasmine Rizk veered between simple drama and the kind of mood lighting usually reserved for music videos, which paralleled the tone of the music with musical direction from Zara Stanton, sound design by Kellie-Anne Kimber, and composition by Eddie Perfect. In particular, the duet remix of “Chains” by Tina Arena captured the combination of humour and irony but with expert execution evident in the whole production.
If another audience streaming out of Belvoir with smiles spread across their faces is anything to go by, the pandemic can’t kill theatre, politicians can’t kill theatre, climate change can’t kill theatre, political correctness can’t kill theatre, because panto will never, ever die.
The Boomkak Panto is running at Belvoir from November 20th – December 23rd
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