You’ll kak your pantos laughing

Rob Johnson plays an evil developer in The Boomkak Panto. Image: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Review: The Boomkak Panto, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills – Wednesday, 24 November, 2021. Reviewed by arts and entertainment editor, Rita Bratovich.

★★★★1/2

You simply won’t find this degree of nonsensical plot points, inappropriate language, name-calling, clownish antics, and indifference to social etiquette outside parliament. It’s a tour de farce. Our expectations of the stupidly talented Virginia Gay are high but she has delivered with a bonus 1.2 litre bottle of Coke and bag of prawn crackers. 

The Boomkak Panto, written by Gay and directed by Gay and Richard Carroll, is panto-esque. It has lots of the elements of traditional pantomime but the humour is more distilled, there is substance in the text (granted, tricky to find sometimes) and the main story is original. It’s actually a play about a putting on a panto with a lot of theatrical overlap. 

Boomkak is a dusty, dry, inconsequential little Australian country town – you’d recognise it immediately even though it doesn’t actually exist. In the first of many smack-you-in-the-eye self-referential gags, the back-drop includes a vintage-lettered sign indicating the frontage of a tomato sauce factory. The Belvoir St Theatre building was originally a tomato sauce factory. Gay might have missed an opportunity with meat-pie in the face gags. 

The Boomkak Panto cast (left to right) Toby Truslove, Mary Soudi, Rob Johnson, Billy McPherson, Zoe Terakes, Deborah Galanos, Virginia Gay. Image: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Anyway, so you’ve got the earnest, good-natured town councillor and First Nations elder, Darren (Billy McPherson); Parnia (Deborah Galanos), a refugee and entrepreneur who owns a Persian/Greek/Cypriot/Egyptian restaurant; Parnia’s daughter, Yazmin (Mary Soudi), who is young, obedient, and torn between her genuine love for Zoe and the safer if less palatable option of marrying the gauche, distinctly un-woke, Butch (Rob Johnson); Zoe (Zoe Terakes), a non-binary, trope-challenging hero who feels like they’re standing on the outside looking in (that’s a nod to the use of classic Aussie songs spattered throughout the play). 

Zoe (Zoe Terakes) and Yazmin (Mary Soudi) are torn-apart lovers. Image: Brett Boardman/supplied.

Also played by Rob Johnson is the villainous BD (Big Developer), deliciously malevolent in a blue pinstriped suit replete with matching cape and set off with pink high-vis tie and trim. Toby Truslove is John, an F-grade actor prone to pretence and clumsily self-unaware. John is the partner of Alison (Gay),  the hapless stage manager who unwittingly ignites the town’s passion for panto, though she herself is utterly pantophobic. Iranian classical musician, Hamed Sadeghi, is on an elevated stage with his traditional tar, setar and oud, playing accompaniment for some unlikely tunes and occasionally interacting with characters. 

The gist of the plot is that the town is being threatened by the nasty, evil BD who wants to build apartments which will of course ruin the whole aesthetic. The townsfolk start brainstorming ways to raise money to fund to save the town and someone mentions the word “panto” to which Alison bristles. She launches into a Heart of Darkness/Hamlet styled monologue that takes us on a journey into the tortured recesses of post-panto trauma. It’s a moment in the play equivalent to a stirring aria in an opera and ends with spontaneous applause. To her horror, Alison’s agonising tale merely sparks unbridled enthusiasm in the others.  

From then on it’s all about walk on/walk off gags, incongruous musical numbers (think Tina Arena, The Angels, soapie themes and TV commercials) and lots of social commentary wearing clown noses. 

At the centre of the play is the love triangle. Gay wrote The Boomkak Panto with Zoe Terakes in mind – not with regard to the buffoonery but the character, Zoe, who speaks a lot of truths on behalf of Terakes, the actor and a non-binary person. 

Gay explores concepts around love and acceptance, as well as issues around land ownership, refugees, white privilege, and the cultural significance of panto. Sometimes the messages are heavy handed but maybe that’s also part of the meta humour. 

It’s worth the price of the ticket to see the opening number, written by Eddie Perfect, with cast uniformly attired in gold lame country and western outfits – a call back to Calamity Jane?

Also … there’s stuff I haven’t mentioned ‘cause they’re spoilers. So you’ll just have to come see for yourself!

The Boomkak Panto plays Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills until Thursday, 23 December, 2021. For tickets and further information, visit belvoir.com.au/productions/the-boomkak-panto.

Rita Bratovich is the arts and entertainment editor of the Sydney Sentinel