Oh yes they did!

Put on a show that makes the audience bawl out sing-song lines in synchrony? Yeah, that. Put on a panto? Sort of. Virginia Gay’s The Boomkak Panto is not the pure kind of pantomime – what’s homage without a critical shakedown in modern theatre? (The answer: simpering, dull.) No, friends, it’s a panto within a play which is self-referentially gussied up to the nines with flamboyant panto flourishes; a tickling of the form to modern sensibilities, updated cultural values and an Aussie stage.

The Boomkak Panto

The cast of The Boomkak Panto. Photo © Brett Boardman

Hijacking the radical exploding of the rules of tradition that pantomime enshrines, this surprisingly long two-and-a-half-hour two-acter unleashes a motherlode of “chaotic good” energy to cleave a clever through-line of a non-binary romance and comment on the caricatures that we become when we perform the roles that are ‘safe’. Never fear though: the progressive themes are snuck in without too much on-the-nose earnestness. With big Tina Arena numbers, glittery tassels, an Aladdin carpet costume, a paint named “white privilege” and much, much more, The Boomkak Panto consistently entertains with the art form’s mad camp tyranny of the silly, the unexpected and the brazenly over the top.

While you’ve be forgiven for thinking so, the onomatopoeically suggestive word ‘Boomkak’ is not a ribald adjective. It is instead the name of the small, no-horse Aussie town where the story is set, home of the Tomato Soup factory, arse-end of Australia (painted in a rather lovely mural from floor to ceiling on Belvoir’s stage walls under set designer Michael Hankin, with Modernist brush strokes and Wheatbix-y tones). When a big developer rolls in, this back of beyond looks beyond all hope. The only way to raise the dough to save the day: put on a panto.

Start to finish, it is of course a fiasco – but that is where the fun is. The character of Alison (played with at times deeply satisfying extravagance by Gay, who also co-directs with Richard Carroll) knew from experience that it would be. When the idea is first floated, she performs a miles-long monologue about the traumatising chaos of panto, herself having spent years stage managing them in the UK, their place of origin. “It’s when vaudeville gets drunk and flirts with its own niece at a party,” she heaves, gripped with shuddering flashbacks of the things they did to keep the show going – midgets in a death cage, whole scripts switched on opening night…

But can they be lucrative? Impossibly, yes. The crowds bay for creative anarchy; the sweet release of sense; the catharsis of logic punching out for the day.

Boomkak may be the back of beyond, but it’s a haven for many of the misfits who live there: the Middle European migrant, single mum and sultry Parnia (played beltingly and beautifully by Deborah Galanos), determined to make her daughter Yazmin’s life better than her own; the plummy, scarf-wearing actor (incarnated with Matt Berry shades by Toby Truslove), who is sheltering from the career he left behind.

Still, their version of paradise isn’t inviting to all of the town’s citizens.

The Boomkak Panto

The cast of The Boomkak Panto. Photo © Brett Boardman

The young non-binary Zoe (Zoe Terakes) is a misfit among misfits. Only their stepdad Darren (Billy McPherson) affirms, acknowledges and respects their gender identity. Though Yazmin (Mary Soudi) has feelings for Zoe, she chooses the strutting boofhead Butch (Rob Johnson) – and keeps choosing him, even when he pet-names her “my pretty Persian carpet” and “my spice wife”. (Cue audience gag.)

“You don’t know what it’s like to be on the outside,” says Zoe, pleading with Yazmin to make their big escape to the big city, a place they might belong.

“And I don’t want to,” she firmly replies.

In the wild and ill-managed maelstrom of the characters’ preparations for their big show, the (ironically ‘straight-played’) character of Zoe anchors it with the constancy of their love for Yazmin and their heroic determination to fight for their truth.

Another calmly centred presence is the live musician Hamed Sadeghi, who sits atop a high platform by the corner of the stage, plucking a live score on a long-necked Iranian lute. Other sounds – slapstick bongos, original songs, a rendition of Am I Ever Gonna See Your Face Again? (the ultimate Aussie call and response?), an intermission playlist including Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and the jingle for Aeroplane Jelly – were supplied by sound designer Kellie-Anne Kimber and composer Eddie Perfect. And, of course, the audience supplies the obligatory booing.

I’m not a person to boo, or vocalise much in a crowd. Whenever I raise my voice, I hear something akin to a runty little asthmatic bat straining to squeal at its friends to ‘hey, guys, fly lower, slow down!’. But boy, it does feel good to boo in unison with an audience when the villain kept insisting Zoe was a girl. To quote, as we did on the night, The Angels: “no way, get f**ked, f*k off”.

The Boomkak Panto

Rob Johnson as the big developer, BD, in The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir. Photo © Brett Boardman

In his second role as the big developer (BD) alongside Butch, the young Rob Johnson clearly has a ball. Emerging in a cloud of smoke and green-tinged lights, wearing a pinstriped bat cape and flashy tie, he scuttles about the stage hunched up like a little goblin, curling his fingers and cackling under an absurdly pencil-straight moustache. Butch is just as much of a dick-swinger, but not as totally evil – just all the kinds of stupid and mean that ripen and rot in toxic masc cis hetero jocks. Johnson wrings every ounce of theatrical nectar from his dual roles, just as he should.

Billy MacPherson, in the role of councilman, good parent and Indigenous elder Darren, sometimes gets lost on the deck of this heaving ship, but his winsome humour really comes to the fore when the pacing slows down. In one particular lull (perhaps the only genuine calm in the storm), his heart-to-heart with Zoe could’ve gotten awkwardly cheesy, but instead it hit just right.

In its world premiere, The Boomkak Panto is a silly play for the silly season, tipsily leaning to the left and bursting with a genuine if critical love for the tradition it mocks. If you go with the good intention to have good time, there’s a very good chance you will.

The Boomkak Panto plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Upstairs, until 23 December.

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