Look behind you! The panto’s back in town

Red Riding Hood at Hoxton Hall. Picture: Graham Bennett

Red Riding Hood at Hoxton Hall. Picture: Graham Bennett - Credit: Archant

Christmas is coming and it’s panto time, oh yes it is. We round up Hackney and Islington’s best festive family entertainment

Gavin Spokes may not be a panto virgin but it’s the first time he’ll be donning the Dame’s garish wigs and body padding.

“I always thought if I’m going to do pantomime I would love to do Hackney because they are modern, inclusive and brilliant but still have all the traditions,” says the actor who’s lobbying to wear Doc Martens rather than heels when he plays Dame Nanny Nora in Hackney Empire’s annual extravaganza, Sleeping Beauty (November 26 to January 8).

“I’m on stage for a lot of the show which is tough for a 17 stone man in heels. The DMs reference the silliness of being a man in a dress.”

As for the padding he says: “I have two assets, let’s put it that way. I’m quite a big chap so I fill the dress with just me, but they give me larger breasts and a bigger bottom so ideally I look like a big cuddly aunty.

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“The tradition is so set it would be bizarre to get rid of the dame. She’s a warm loving character, a celebration of how brilliant women are, the gag is the man is trying to be the woman inside the dress.”

Spokes’ previous parts include a barnstorming performance as Nicely Nicely Johnson in the recent Guys and Dolls West End revival, an ambition he says was on his “bucket list”.

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He also played the James Cordon part in frenetic farce One Man Two Guv’nors and says: “If you’ve done that you should be fine to do a big show like this which is like a musical and a panto in one.”

He loves the accessibility of the traditional entertainment which stars Sharon D Clarke as wicked Sorceress Carabosse and revolves around feisty Princess Tahlia who is “more of a hero with a big sword than a sleeping girl who disappears from most of the story”.

From chucking out sweets to an audience singalong and numbers by Rhianna, Beyonce and Chaka Khan, artistic director Susie McKenna’s annual show promises to be a riot.

“Panto is the first time many children get taken to the theatre,” says Spokes.

“I want to make them feel part of something and that their dreams and ambitions can be as big and ridiculous as this show.

“Hackney really make their pantos their own so everyone can love it and Susie understands that the final character of a panto is the audience.”

Hoxton Hall is hoping to spread the joy of panto to all families in the borough by asking generous customers to buy extra tickets for children in need.

Anyone booking this year’s Christmas show Red Riding Hood will be asked to fund either one extra £10 child ticket or a £50 family ticket.

Working with Hackney Council and Barnado’s to identify families who would otherwise be unable to enjoy a festive outing, they hope to fund special performances for families in need.

Presented in association with Edmonton’s Millfield Theatre the panto follows the fate of the eponymous girl, best friend Tommy Tucker, Mother Hood and the wicked wolf. Packed with songs, comedy and lashings of audience participation it runs December 14 to 24.

Hoxton Hall artistic director Karena Johnson said: “We believe that every child should have access to the theatre, which is why we are starting a special fundraising drive to help families in need into our theatre for a truly magical experience which we hope will begin a lifetime love for theatre.”

One-off donations to the Families Christmas Panto Fund without buying tickets can also be made via hoxtonhall.co.uk or the box office 020 7684 0060.

Also in Hackney the Arcola stages its first family Christmas show – an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant.

Presented by the theatre’s creative engagement department, the story of a giant who bans local children from playing in his beautiful garden has been freshly adapted into an enthralling visual fairytale by poet and playwright Richard O’Brien. £28 for a family ticket, December 7 to 16 arcolatheatre.com

Charles Court Opera make a welcome return to the King’s Head with its annual boutique pantomime Pinocchio. Blending puns, silliness innuendo and draw-dropping musical numbers from pop to opera it’s a highlight of Islington’s seasonal entertainment. With special matinees where under fives can sit free on laps, family friendly shows, and saucier adults only performances, it runs from December 1 until January 7. kingsheadtheatre.com

Katie Mitchell’s acclaimed adaptation of The Cat in the Hat returns to The Pleasance this Christmas from December 6 until January 2.

Fresh from enchanting the Edinburgh Fringe, it delivers the visual aesthetic and joyful quirkiness of Dr Seuss’s book about a home alone brother and sister beset by a mischievous cat. Pleasance.co.uk

For teens and older, the Old Red Lion presents a spookier performance of MR James’ Ghost Stories for Christmas. Every yuletide, the Victorian scholar would perform ghost stories to friends at King’s College, Cambridge and a century on these eerie masterpieces are performed by Robert Lloyd Parry. The acclaimed one man show will have audiences on the edge of the seat with ghoulish tales of revenge, witchcraft, and the occult. Performances on December 12,19 and 24. 0844 412 4307.

And not forgetting Sadler’s Well’s annual residency at the Peacock Theatre with enchanting children’s ballet The Snowman. It features a tap dancing snowman who travels to lapland with a young boy to meet Jack Frost and Father Christmas plus Howard Blake’s haunting Walking in the Air. November 26 until January 4 sadlerswells.com

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