Shakespeare said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. But Virginia Gay decided, actually, life is a Christmas pantomime – and all the he’s, she’s and they’s are not merely players, but also chaotic directors, stressed out production managers and eager set builders just trying to work together to create magic, meaning and sweet distraction amongst the ups and downs of life.
A pantomime within a play, that’s also a musical, The Boomkak Panto strikes the perfect balance of humility, relevance and all-singing, all-dancing ridiculous fun to see out the year that was 2021 and turn the campery of Christmas up to eleven.
Pantomimes, or pantos as they are more affectionately known in the UK, are renowned for fielding massive stars, d-listers and even school principals in super-camp stagings of (usually) fairy tales, with lots of gender fluidity, booing at bad guys, randomly inserted references and pop songs, and general audience participation madness.
After witnessing a couple of British pantos for the first time at the tender age of 38, Gay roped in the team that helped her stage a critically-praised, modern queer-coded reimagining of the classic Wild West movie musical Calamity Jane to have a run at an Aussie answer to the riddle of panto. And they have absolutely nailed it.
This fresh take deploys one of the most Aussie stories of all: a big developer muscling in on a small bush community that is not having a bar of it. This regional outpost launches into a David and Goliath battle to save their town, which is full of happy families, refreshing diversity and the occasional rivalry. They all draw together in a battle for survival and, in a meta-textual twist, fight back by staging their own pantomime.
Strap in for memorable reimaginings of bangers like Tina Arena’s ‘Chains’ and the Angels’ ‘Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again?’ (and warm your pipes up for a certain call-and-response often relegated to the pub), as well as some original new songs composed by our Eddie Perfect (who recently picked up a Tony nomination for his work on the score of Beetlejuice the Musical on Broadway). As per panto tradition, expect a nonsensical mystery celebrity appearance too – on opening night, we were treated to a recorder rendition of a Jimmy Barnes song by none other than David Campbell.
Gay writes, co-directs (alongside Richard Carroll) and acts in this ridiculous romp – but the standout star is Zoe Terakes (seen on screen in Wentworth and Nine Perfect Strangers), whom Gay says she wrote it for. And it would have been awkward if Terakes hadn’t accepted the role, seeing as their character shares their name and use of they/them pronouns. Terakes brings warmth and authenticity to the stage as a misunderstood queer teenager with ambitions bigger than the one-horse town they hail from.
As the wife and manager to her kind but unaware actor husband John (played to perfection by Toby Truslove), Gay does not shy away in the background as much as her character believes she does. And if you find yourself wondering where her signature sexed-up cabaret stylings have gone, just wait for the quick costume change in the second half, you won’t be disappointed.
With Michael Hankin on set and costume design, the staging is simple but effective, with a wrap-around mural evoking a dusty rural Aussie town, and Jasmine Rizk’s evocative lighting design shifting the mood where needed.
From the script, it is clear that Gay immersed herself in studying and understanding the joy and japery of the classic panto, and how to translate that to Sydney’s theatregoers who are fresh from a four-month lockdown. The story addresses the more problematic undertones of the tradition, while pulling in nuance and pathos in speaking about race, gender and class. The archetype of the big bad villain is seized (with show-stealing malice from Rob Johnson) but Boomkak also leaves room for good people to be imperfect, and for dickheads to get their comeuppance.
Gay manages to weave in commentary on a myriad of social issues and current affairs. You can choose to soak those in, or just to enjoy the rollicking tomfoolery of it all. For good measure, do both. The most acute personification of both of those elements exists in the character Darren (portrayed by Kamilaroi and Kooma man Billy McPherson), who comically swaps between his responsibilities as a town councillor and an Aboriginal elder by taking a lanyard on and off.
At its best, Boomkak embraces the balls-to-the-wall glittery campery of it all. However, Aussie audiences still display some hesitation when it comes to the audience participation of the panto, and a better explainer up top and some more active coaxing to get the audience cheering and booing would not have gone astray, even on opening night.
So warm up your voice and get ready to yell at the actors, buy yourself a light-up fairy wand at intermission, and trade in the chaos of life for the hilarious chaos of panto for a couple of hours. After seeing this show, you’ll be making a case for the Carols in the Domain to hand the reins over to Virginia Gay to turn into a self-aware panto. Go on, give it to Gay.
The Boomkak Panto plays at Belvoir St Theatre until December 23, 2021. Get your tickets here.