Both sharply satirical and hugely warm-hearted, I tumble hard for the charms of The Foreigners’ Panto at BOLD Theatre
“Since we’re bound to get it wrong
Remember where our hearts belong”
I haven’t reviewed pantomimes for several years now. I have long enjoyed the form (I still have fond memories of Peter Duncan clambering over us all as Aladdin at the Hackney Empire way back when) but as pieces of theatre to write about and critically appraise, it’s a tricky genre to get stuck into. Thankfully, Shani Erez’s The Foreigners’ Panto for BOLD Theatre is as much political comedy and commentary as pantomime, a searching look at all kinds of British institutions.
BOLD’s What They Forgot To Tell Us (and other stories) throughly enchanted me back in 2021 and whilst last year saw the devastating loss of their founder, the much-missed Sarah Davey-Hull, you have to imagine that she’d be delighted with the results of their second production, directed by Erez, Marianne Badrichani and Sarah Goddard. A group of immigrants waiting to hear about their applications to stay in the UK decide to put on a pantomime but as they embrace the weird and wonderful conventions therein, the harshness of the real world proves never too far (far) away.
It’s a canny approach from Erez, allowing her to deftly switch between the two modes. Her panto pulls on all the archetypes – set in the mythical city of Londom with talking bells, characters called Dame Foreign and Lord Villain plus a cow called Visa (scene-stealing work from Amanda Vilanova), audience participation aplenty with sweets being given out as reward. And with the ‘outsider’ perspective at play, there’s a nod to how odd pantos can get, the cast frequently breaking character to ask what on earth are the audience doing as we boo and cheer and point out that someone might be behind them.
In the tradition of all good pantos, the comedy works on multiple levels (that Yarl’s Wood joke – yow!). A savagely satirical bite kicks in as Lord Villain decides to expel all foreign-born people from Londom, including Dame Foreign and her daughter Zara who has formed an attachment to Villain’s son Benedict Bumbercatch. Poisoned apples thus give way to midnight raids and the threat of deportation and the Kafka-esque but all-too-real vortex of near-impossible documentation and bureaucracy threatens to swallow everyone up.
Layered on top is then the experience of the immigrants themselves, their own wait for all-important letters intersecting with the play and impacting it so forcefully. There are some bracing scenes here (Aliya Roberts absolutely nailing it as Zara) but equally powerful is the sense of camaraderie in the group, both as characters and as actors. The tenderness that comes from an innate understanding of what it is to be in that situation is so well written and so well-acted (the cast are all first and second generation immigrants themselves) – a brutal reminder of the human cost of a hostile environment.
But for all its insightful weight, there’s just so much fun to be had here at “the panto of all pantos”. Vikash Bhai’s creeping technique as Villain discovering the joys of a portable smoke machine, the Life in the UK quiz bit(so many of us would fail!), Fabrizio Matteini’s scenery-chomping and wildly flirtatious Dame, Gabriel Paul’s warm-hearted constable and his impassioned song about identity, MD Leo Elso’s hair, Suzy Kohane’s cruelly curtailed interpretative dance, the list goes on. Rest assured though, nothing is lost in translation here, The Foreigners’ Pantomime is a hit.