From the Chanukah pantomime performance in London, “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.” Photo by Jane Hobson.
From the Chanukah pantomime performance in London, “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.” Photo by Jane Hobson.
featureJewish & Israeli Holidays

London Chanukah pantomime offers a non-kosher take on Brothers Grimm tale

Josh Glanc told JNS that his character has “been a little too preoccupied with evil plans for owning everything that he hasn’t had time for shul.”

In the heart of London’s northern suburbs, a Jewish cultural center is breaking new ground with the United Kingdom’s first-ever professional Chanukah pantomime performance, titled “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.”

The so-called “panto,” a family-friendly genre of British theatrical performance is typically staged during the Christmas season, and its plots often revolve around fairy tales. (Unlike U.S. pantomime performances, this British genre includes spoken words.)

In the new adaptation of the centuries-old story, which was famously recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Red is an industrious young Jewish scientist who rebels against her mother’s pleas for her to marry a co-religionist doctor.

The fiery protagonist flees in search of sustainable energy to power her village through Chanukah, echoing not only the classic fairytale but the Maccabean drama that the festival of lights commemorates annually. The folk tale’s typically villainous wolf is replaced by an equally unkosher beast, a “big bad” pig.

The award-winning Australian comedian Josh Glanc, who stars as the villainous swine, told JNS that his character “has kind of forgotten about his Jewishness and his family.”

“He’s been a little too preoccupied with evil plans for owning everything that he hasn’t had time for shul,” Glanc said of his character, acknowledging that the role “is pretty similar to me—except for the evil plans part.”

“I haven’t had to try too hard at playing him,” he said. “I instinctively get it.”

From the Chanukah pantomime performance in London, “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.” Credit: Courtesy.

Amy Winehouse in a red raincoat?

Gemma Barnett, who stars as the hero Red, told JNS that it was “really important to find the truth of that character, so even though the production is huge and theatrical and silly, Red is always playing the truth of the narrative and driving it forward.”

Barnett drew parallels between her character and real-life Jewish activists. Her character is “politically driven and trying to find clean and cheap renewable energy to save Chanukah,” Barnett said. “She reminds me of lots of Jewish activists I know, with the zest, charm and fire of British Jewish icons I grew up with, like Amy Winehouse.”

From the Chanukah pantomime performance in London, “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.” Photo by Jane Hobson.

Josh Middleton, the musical director, told JNS that he selected the songs meticulously, including pieces from Jewish popular musicians like Barbra Streisand and the late pop star Winehouse.

“These choices, along with various bits of klezmer you’ll find sprinkled throughout the piece, amplify the action and story onstage, while also paying homage to some of the most iconic Jewish composers and keeping a very strong Jewish identity to all the music,” he said.

‘This is a panto for anyone’

Abigail Anderson, the director, emphasized the pantomime’s interactive nature in an interview with JNS.

“From the very first moment of the pantomime, when Bubbah,” the grandmother, “says ‘hello’ and waits for a reply, our audience will feel welcomed into the show and know that they are expected to respond and take part in the action,” she said.

From the Chanukah pantomime performance in London, “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.” Photo by Jane Hobson.

As with the broader panto genre, audience participation is integral to the experience.

“It’s fun to feel you’re helping the story. We want kids to yell, ‘Behind you!’ to warn our heroine of encroaching danger,” Anderson said. “We want to make the audience feel like a family, rooting for the characters and enjoying the live experience as one.”

William Galinsky, director of programming at JW3, the Jewish communal hub hosting the production, told JNS that organizers wanted to give the Jewish community “their own version of panto.”

“In the same way that you can go to the Hackney Empire or Theatre Royal Stratford East and feel that their pantos speak to those local communities, we wanted JW3’s panto to speak to our local community whether Jewish, Jewi-‘ish’ or Jew-curious,” he said.

From the Chanukah pantomime performance in London, “Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig.” Photo by Jane Hobson.

Galinsky stressed that JW3 prides itself on being open to all. “This year, we celebrated Passover, Easter and Ramadan together,” he said. “We also run a food bank that serves 150 households, none of whom are Jewish.”

“I think Jewish humor is so universal that this is a panto for anyone, and Jewish humor is obviously a massive part of London humor and language,” he added. “It’s a real mishmash, which is, of course, a Yiddish word.”

The show’s lead producer, Becky Plotneck told JNS that the production was in part about remodeling the age-old panto with a Chanukah twist. “I wish my younger self could have seen this show,” she said, and “could have seen Jewishness represented in this way, with pride and joy and laughter.”

Plotneck said she “never thought I’d see the day that hearing ‘Maoz Tzur’ being sung in four-part harmony could move me to tears, but I think it’s about feeling represented, on stage, as Jews in a way we haven’t felt before.”

The two-hour performance opened on Dec. 10 and runs through Jan. 7.

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