The Foreigner’s Panto at Bold Theatre – review

Panto season comes early – and with a twist

Amanda Vilanova (Visa), Fabrizio Matteini (Dame Foreign), Aliya Roberts (Zara). The Foreigners' Panto - photo by Lidia Crisafulli
Amanda Vilanova (Visa), Fabrizio Matteini (Dame Foreign), Aliya Roberts (Zara). The Foreigners’ Panto – photo by Lidia Crisafulli

It may seem a little early for panto, but tucked away in an anonymous looking office building, just around the corner from Elephant and Castle, that is exactly what is happening. Boos, hisses, ‘He’s Behind You-s’ and ‘Oh, No It Isn’t-s’ are all being liberally deployed early for Bold Theatre’s unusual take on this most British of artforms. Don’t worry though, this is not a Christmas affair and I’m pleased to say that neither Nigel Havers nor Julian Clary are anywhere to be seen. The Foreigners’ Panto is far more about the ‘foreigner’ than it is about the panto.

A group of friends have assembled as Zara awaits the decision on her British Citizenship. She’s done her time here, filled out her forms and taken her test. Now she is celebrating Britishness in the best way that she knows how – she’s putting on a panto. A familiar pantomime structure plays out as Shani Erez symbiotically manages to interlock the fairytale of good versus evil into a darker underbelly of the acceptance and inclusion of immigrants into our country.

Dame Foreign (a warm-heartedly funny Fabrizio Matteini) is making a new life for herself and her daughter, Zara (a bouncy young Aliyah Roberts) in Londom, the capital of Britaim. They left their home in Far Far Away over a year ago and have been learning about tea, cake and umbrellas – all crucial elements of the Britaimese way of life. One of Dame Foreign’s many jobs – she has so many jobs that she “barely has chance to steal our benefits” – is cleaning for Lord Villain (a wonderfully ludicrous Vikash Bhai), the Dictator-in-Chief of Londom.

Suzy Kohane’s exuberantly confused Benedict Bumbercatch, is the unlikely love interest and delights in a random concoction of varying pop-cultures – but can never be assumed to be as homely grown as everyone thinks. There is equally ridiculous comic work too from Amanda Vilanova as Visa the Cow (presumably purely to allow for the gag “this visa has expired” when she briefly turns up her hooves) and Gabriel Paul as the order-following Policeman John Constable (yes, that makes him Constable Constable).

The humour is far from subtle and some of Erez’s lines don’t always land. Erez, Sarah Goddard and Marianne Badrichani are all billed as co-directors which may explain the mildly chaotic feel to some of the night. Tomer Run’s music is functional rather than enjoyable and lacks the sparkle to fully bring the pantomime element to life. A heartfelt attempt at an eleven o’clock song called “Night Bus” sung by Zara is as close as it gets to a well-rounded musical number.

There is no denying the prowess of this small and impressively international company – with some exquisite work on display and bravado moments that are genuinely funny. There is equal commitment to the moments of sincerity that impacts nicely when it needs to, even if this does feel a little over-earnest on occasions. The more satirical moments are great but are underexplored – a monster-like incarnation of “Bureaucracy” adds a layer of intelligence to the concept of the piece that enhances it deftly. Equally there are occasions where a little too much rehearsal room self-indulgence makes for a longer evening than is necessary.

It’s a quirky little show with an honest message – impressive in its bravery in this otherwise rather non-descript venue. It will be interesting to see how bold this new space will continue to become.