When it comes to pantomimes, Londoners are – let’s face it – spoilt for choice.
But while in the past one might have to schlep into the West End to catch the best shows, there seem each year to be more Christmas productions opening on our doorstep in East London.
One of the newest recruits to the East London panto circuit is at Winterville, the winter festival in Victoria Park, which this year is staging Snow White in its resplendently mirrored Spiegeltent.
With the inclusion of ‘dwarfs’ being somewhat problematic in this day and age, the production uses puppets – or rather Jim Henson-style muppets – as Snow White’s seven forest-dwelling companions.
“I think when the puppetry is good, the audience and the kids are going to believe them,” says director Peter Joucla, who has adapted the pantomime from a script he originally wrote more than 20 years ago.
“All of our puppets have different names, there’s no Sleepy, Dopey and all that, and we’ve given them different personalities too. And as they all look different, we’re taking the liberty of making them all ethnically different.”
“I don’t think anyone’s going to pick up on it, but I see the puppets as the outcasts, the economic refugees that have been thrown out of the city.”
Joucla is the founder of Tour de Force, a theatre company that since 1996 has toured world-wide, staging theatrical classics and adaptations in English and French including The Sting at Wilton’s Music Hall this year, and one of the first adaptations of The Great Gatsby in 2011.
Last year, at the first ever Winterville festival, Tour de Force staged a swash-buckling version of Robin Hood, complete with multiple-costume changes and choreographed fight scenes.
“The Spiegeltent is an amazing space to perform,” says Joucla. “The atmosphere in there is lovely, it’s absolutely enchanting. I think this year at Winterville they’re going to do a lot more for young people than last year. I think the organisers really want it to be an alternative to the more commercial Winter Wonderland.”
Alternative the production may well be, although Joucla promises that audience participation, hissing at the baddie and silly comic routines will still be part of the fun.
Another crucial difference is the music. Fitting an orchestra in the Spiegeltent would mean no room for the audience, so Joucla, himself a musician and singer, co-wrote all the songs himself, creating “sophisticated and complicated” four-part vocal arrangements.
Having the seven dwarfs belt out ‘Uptown Funk’ would be anathema to Joucla, who will not at any price sacrifice the story at the altar of “cheap contemporary references”.
“I’ve got written on the side of my van disbelief suspension services, because all my life I’ve thought that telling stories is the most important thing,” Joucla says.
“I think stories like Snow White have a lasting impact because there’s a kernel of truth in it. For this one the darker theme is about vanity, that Snow White may be beautiful but her message is about what’s lying underneath.”
Snow White is at Victoria Park, East London until 23 December.