Hello I’m Henry and my pronouns are he and him.
Characters in A Pair of Pantos introduce themselves with their pronouns as freely as with their names. It’s a gentle education about how simple that can be. Pronouns are important, the show tells us, they have meaning and deserve clarification, but they don’t define us. Nothing can, in fact, in a production which gloriously rejects the idea that a human being can be defined by any one trait, or that a pantomime can be defined by the tropes of its form, or the plot of its fairytale inspiration. In this transpositive, all-gender-inclusive, queer pantomime mashup, there’s no beanstalk or giants to be found, but Jack, (Subira Wahogo) whose pronouns are they and them, still has something big and scary to contend with. Being a schoolkid means attending P.E (awful enough on its own, believe me) and being a non-binary schoolkid attending P.E means questions and pressure and having to pick the right pair of underwear from the highly gendered choices on offer.
King Rat, who confidently asserts that their pronouns are King and Rat (obviously), is a classic panto villain, all maniacal self-aggrandization lisped through a set of fake comedy teeth and followed through with an accidental fart. King Rat is sure that the pantomime they’re in this year is Dick Whittington, but has found themself in a crossover where things don’t make sense in the easy, comforting way that they used to. Any breaks from the usual narrative, or from pantomimic form, confuses and frustrates King Rat, whose assumption that Sarah the Cook will prepare dinner is rebutted with delightful deadpan by the unfortunately named Sarah Thukkok (say it out loud), who’s actually a business student at Brighton University.
It’s all really silly stuff, full of Dad jokes and bad dancing, bad jokes and Dad dancing. There are enough puns about tinned beans to leave you forever equipped with quips for any situation you might encounter that involves tinned beans. Of course, you’ll also get a chance to shout at the actors and sing along to plenty of parody songs (particularly enjoyable was a take on Meatloaf’s I Would Do Anything For Love rewritten for austerity Britain, I Would Sell Anything For Food). This is a pantomime that can absolutely do traditional, if the next hit of sweet sweet tradition is what you’re chasing, but crucially these traditional antics don’t provide an opening for bad sexist or racist vibes to sneak in and join the party. Instead, the images we receive are far more nourishing: Jack and one of their two Dads have an open and honest discussion about the non-binary experience, providing role models for both parents and children in the audience. Later, a magical talking tin of beans reminds us that self-care is important, proving once and for all that beans really are good for your heart.
The animated cast deliver even the weaker gags with up-for-it enthusiasm and stuff the Marlborough full of good cheer. Writer and director Hester Chillingworth also plays Yessie the good witch, a really welcoming and engaging narrator who sets the DIY magic tone of the show with a handful of confetti flung into the air whenever they enter. The biggest laughs though are courtesy of Nicki and Peter Hobday, real life siblings who fluidly share the role of King Rat. What starts as an unmentioned change of actor (you’d be forgiven for assuming that this wasn’t a choice, but a result of the constraints of a small cast playing multiple characters) becomes a hilarious and beautifully theatrical illustration of the damaging effect of thinking in binary. As King Rat refuses to acknowledge or reconcile the contradictory, multitudinous aspects of their nature, the two actors pass the role back and forth at an increasingly frenetic pace, in a precarious relay race where the only possible finish line is a completely shattered sense of self.
It’s hard to disagree with the ultimate moral, that we’re all ‘as messy and bubbly as a giant pan of beans.’ Spending a couple of hours with this inclusive company is just as comforting, too. I’m already looking forward to next year’s pantomime at the Marlborough, particularly after being teased with such a delicious concept as ‘the Uglys Cis-ters.’
A Pair of Pantos was on at the Marlborough Theatre, Brighton, from 18-20 December. It is touring to London and Sheffield until 30 December. More info here.