Belvoir welcomes back its audience with the theatrical equivalent of a smushy kiss and one of those slightly-too-long, now-it’s-awkward embraces.
O little town of Boomkak, regional New South Wales. Pretty dry, pretty boring. Pretty fucked, actually – especially for Zoe (played by Zoe Terakes), who has nothing much to do beyond moon after their ex-squeeze Yazmin (Mary Soudi), who has capitulated to internalised oppression and taken up with local boofhead Butch (Rob Johnson), who, among other things, like to refer to her “his little Persian carpet”.
Just another day in Boomkak. Then word spreads that a big city developer has plans to buy up the main street and send in the wrecking ball.
Boomkak must be saved! A protest must be organised! But that requires money. What better way than to raise it than by putting on a panto?
As luck would have it, someone in Boomkak knows everything there is to know about the venerable theatrical form. Alison (writer and co-director Virginia Gay) worked for years in London as a stage manager.
Horrified by the prospect, she unloads everything she has seen in pantoland (helpfully bringing panto-newbs in the audience up to speed) and none of it is good. Panto isn’t theatre, she rails. It isn’t art. It’s the lowest form of entertainment. “It’s when vaudeville gets drunk and flirts with its own niece.”
As her speech goes on (and on …), it becomes apparent Alison is suffering from pantomime-induced stress disorder.
But the organising committee, led by migrant restaurateur Parnia (Deborah Galanos) will not be put off. Boomkak will have its panto, come hell or high water – or in this case, a catastrophic fire.
The central conceit of The Boomkak Panto is a shotgun marriage of form and content. Once Alison has illuminated the many wonky ways of panto (the stock business and characters; audience participation and outrageous Dames; the nonsense subplots, etc, etc), we are primed to observe the ways in which Gay’s diversity-championing Little Town That Could story plays with similar tropes.
The developer (winningly played by Rob Johnson) is a caped and mustachioed villain to be hissed at every turn. David Campbell did an opening night guest turn (an endearingly and deliberately wobbly version of John Farnham’s You’re the Voice).
There’s a romance to root for and a genuine prince in Terakes’ portrayal of a small town outsider. And there’s audience participation aplenty during a rendition of The Angels’ classic Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? (You know how that goes, right?)
Beyond its good political heart (worn very much on the sleeve) and gentle satire, however, there isn’t much to Boomkak and the pacing of the production (co-directed by Richard Carroll) is frequently pedestrian, especially up to interval. Barbs directed at the PM (another cue for booing) need to be fresher and sharper.
The performances are good within the limits of the script. A scene with Terakes and Billy McPherson (playing their stepdad Darren, Boomkak’s Indigenous spokesman) stands out for its quiet truthfulness. Toby Truslove is very funny as a semi-retired TV actor getting to grips with the panto dame sense of humour. Johnson works the crowd excellently as the dastardly developer.
Gay is charming and charismatic. You would expect nothing less. But when she commands the spotlight for a big number, it feels like a star attempting to rescue a floundering show.
Yes, it’s great to be back in the theatre and all that, but two-and-a-half hours spent celebrating and sending up its pleasures and peccadillos isn’t enough – even in the silly season.