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A Little Panto on the Prairie

Date

25th November 2017

Society

Hockwold Amateurs Theatrical Society

Venue

Hockwold Village Hall

Type of Production

Pantomime

Director

Sue Sander

Report

Author: DeeDee Doke representing Julie Petrucci

The very predictability of pantomimes – the stock characters, the sing-song with children in the audience, the catch phrases – is part of their charm. At the same time, a few surprises and twists in the patented formula can add even greater enjoyment to this wonderful form of entertainment.

A Little Panto on the Prairie by Richard Lock received its very first staging in November at the hands of Hockwold Amateur Theatrical Society (HATS), so the society reports, and this quirky pantomime certainly provided an array of surprises – both in the writing and the actual production – on a Friday evening.

HATS is the stalwart NODA Award-winning company that builds its own stage at Hockwold’s village hall for each of its productions. This time, the stage provided the platform for action set in the American Old West, with the crise de jour the impending closure of Madame Moonshine’s saloon. 

The villain of the piece is the evil Sheriff Cactus Jack (a snarling, sneering and very entertaining Viv Morris), who is threatening to shut the saloon by finding sufficient health & safety violations to put the good-hearted dame Madame Moonshine (a loveable Gary Sander) out of business and to then snap up the property. The Sheriff has three henchmen, a ‘mini me’ sheriff (Joanne Sullivan) and the gun-toting Mexican duo of Jose (Bertie Sander) and Hose B (Kaci Sander). (Get the joke?) 

Of course, the day is saved, the saloon remains the property of Madame Moonshine, and true love is rewarded. No surprises there.

But Little Panto had many happy surprises: highly original twists on the traditional comedic henchmen’s roles, diverse & inclusive casting in unexpected roles, some absolutely delightful and clever performances, and beautifully designed and crafted costumes of a professional quality. 

Directed by Sue Sander, this production offered a refreshing take on gender-neutral casting. For instance, all of the male villains were well played by women such as the rip-snorting Morris. As Jose, the more intrepid of the two henchmen, Bertie Sander delivered an exceptional comedic performance with charismatic confidence and deft comic timing. As Hose B, Kaci Sander held her own as the more dubious and wary of the pair, following Jose’s bumbling lead into disaster after disaster. The smallest villain, Joanne Sullivan put great focus on keeping up with her boss as the silent ‘mini-me’ Sheriff’. 

The dim-witted comedic hero, Tumbleweed, was also played by a woman, the hard-working and energetic Jill Enefer.  In an opposite twist, the typical ‘principal boy’/hero role of Buck the cowboy who would typically be played by a woman was played by a young man (Max Blake), supported by his sidekick Silent Bob (Zak McGarry).

And as the Big Chief, a role that generally would have gone to a male, the diminutive Brenda Willison was a supremely commanding presence, exuding authority with her powerful voice and pure gravitas. What a bravura performance! 

In limited roles, Sue Perry, Mariana Sekira, Lewis Sismey and David White brought sparkle and verve to their time onstage, leaving indelible impressions on the audience. 

Throughout the casting, the group’s commitment to inclusivity was evident – an exciting and applause-worthy practice that puts HATS on a rung above many larger groups. 

A stand-out aspect of Little Panto was superb costuming by Carol Haigh, who the group tells me, sews each costume new for each of the society’s shows. My favourite was a patchwork, sequinned and shimmering ensemble complete with zipped jacket, all components matching the purple hair of the wearer, the perfectly pixie-ish Fairy (Megan Askew). 

And other surprises? Sadly, in a production that generally offered lots of fun and super moments, cast members seemed to be caught by surprise when it came to performing their musical numbers. Noticeable line problems dogged some scenes. Projection proved to be a challenge for all but a handful of cast members.

In summary: congratulations to HATS for daring to be different and successfully delivering a colourful and entertaining show that had to – literally -- be built from the ground up. Here’s to your 2018 production of Oliver!