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Joel Samuels


In Praise of Alternative Christmas Shows in Alternative Spaces

Posted: 26/11/2012 16:04

It's that time of year once again and most theatres, both in the regions and in London, will be dusting off the double-entendres, sticking the balloons down the dresses of Widow Twanky's up and down the land and the audience will delight to be part of the show, harmonising together on that peculiarly great, Great British classic: "he's behind you!" Yes, it's Panto season.

But working with Rebel Theatre this Winter we are bringing to life a show to delight the young and old that, hopefully, will give audiences as much fun as a traditional Pantomime with, perhaps, a dash more of a story to get your teeth into....

Earlier this year I co-produced the initial Fringe run of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur - the much praised play eventually transferring to the West End where it continued to astound audiences as 'the most intimate production of the most intense play ever written.' We were much praised for our daringness in creating such a show and for having the guts to do something challenging and invigorating.

It was as I thought about what I'd like to do next, that a chance conversation last Summer with the director Simon Pollard about an exciting new theatre-venue opening in a converted warehouse in South London, created the possibility of doing something equally daring and excitingly different in the run up to Christmas.

Rania Jumaily and Laura Crampsie have opened The Last Refuge in Peckham at a time when more conventional theatres are feeling the pinch of cuts and unfortunately are having to charge visiting companies extortionate hire rates: the Last Refuge don't charge companies a straight hire rate which gives companies like Rebel Theatre the chance to be inventive and experimental without the constrictions of being desperate to earn back the hire fees. In our case when Simon pitched the idea of an alternative Christmas show we were delighted that Rania responded with a very clear: "Yeah, babes, it sounds fab!"

Our idea was to find a play that married the feeling of being outside the mainstream of theatreland - and what could be more outside the mainstream then our lovingly converted warehouse in Peckham Rye - with the edge that sometimes can be lacking in fairytales and Panto's.

Twelve years ago Simon went to see Playbox Theatre's brand new Christmas commission Beyond Beauty, by LA-based playwright and screenwriter Ron Hutchinson. Playbox is one of Europe's leading arts operations for children and young people and the play featured 40 young actors of varying ages. It rang a chord with Simon as a brilliantly subversive take on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, perfect for those looking for their Christmas theatre-treats to have a little more soul.

What he didn't know was that the play would eventually go through various different production companies hands wanting to turn it into television series or films: luckily for us it never got past the development stage and, to quote Ron Hutchinson himself, the play 'went to sleep,' until Simon jumped at the chance to awaken it this Winter. We have worked with Ron to rewrite the play for a cast of eight and marry it to both the space that we are performing in and the local area surrounding the space itself. This play has been reborn as a fairytale very much of its time and location.

Now I should be clear that I don't hate conventional theatre-spaces nor do I loathe pantomime but, frankly, there isn't enough theatre at this time of year that works to make you think: that combines top quality slapstick comedy with poignancy and pathos. Whilst aside from panto there is the temptation to program various forms of fairytale; these inevitably buy into a form of storytelling that hasn't evolved in far too long. The fairytale princess marries the prince and regardless of the journey that gets us there we know exactly where the story is going to go: and they all lived happily ever after.

In that sense Beyond Beauty is my ideal Christmas show and, beyond that, it is my perfect take on a fairytale: no Disney style candy-coated joy for our Princess here, rather the truth of what happens when a young lad from Peckham stumbles into an enchanted castle on his way home from a night out, finds a beautiful girl sleeping like a statue and feels compelled to kiss her. Will they get married? Will the King and Queen adapt to a life without the luxury of a grand castle? And what on earth is the Banger Pie? These are all questions that we answer in Beyond Beauty, all within the environs of our enchanted castle, tucked away in a warehouse off the back of Rye Lane opposite Peckham Rye station.

So come down to South London in the run up to this Christmas for something completely different and we guarantee you a blooming good time with ne'er a Disneyfied ending nor a 'he's behind you' in sight.

Beyond Beauty, by Ron Hutchinson, 27th November to 15th December, 7.30pm Tuesday to Saturday and 3pm on Sundays at the Last Refuge in Peckham Rye. Tickets: www.thelastrefuge.co.uk/book-tickets


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