In two decades or more of reviewing theatre I don’t think I have seen anything quite like this. For among all the shows clamouring to give audiences some much, or let’s face it, desperately needed good cheer this festive season, there is one that sticks out. Put another way, why is this panto different from all other pantos?
It goes by the conjoined titles Little Red Riding Rood and the Big Bad Pig. However the clue to what makes this show special lies more in the venue than the title. Described as JW3’s first Chanukah panto, the creators reckon that is the first-ever professionally produced Jewish version of the uniquely British form of seasonal entertainment.
“It’s like an end-of-year Purimspiel,” explains playwright Nick Cassenbaum, who while rehearsals are on has escaped cold London for sunny warm San Francisco. The creator of such Jewish shows as Bubble Schmeisis is taking part in a Jewish writers’ residency for children there.
Cassenbaum is also the writer of After the Lavoiya, the stand-out offering (in an evening of outstanding Jewish work) at the inaugural Eminate festival of Jewish theatre in 2022. His panto won’t have the political resonance of that show – a revenge fantasy featuring old-school East End Jewish gangsters and Jeremy Corbyn (there are hopes that JW3 will mount a fully staged version). But his panto promises to have much of the freewheeling, madcap energy.
It features three generations of Jewish female panto characters: Mother Hoodman is the Dame (played by the always excellent Debbie Chazen); there is a grandma or Bubba like you’ve never seen before (played by the Portuguese physical theatre specialist Tiago Fonseca) and a Red who Cassenbaum describes as a “Gen Z Red Riding Hood who is interested in social justice”, (Gemma Barnett). The show also boasts a songbook of Jewish pop and rock re-worked in Klezmer-style by an on-stage band.
“I’ve also got a neurotic Wolf [Lauren Silver], who is questioning their identity and thinks they should be a vegan. And I’ve got the City boy pig,” adds Cassenbaum. Is the pig Jewish?
“Yes,” he says unhesitatingly. “We think his backstory is that he is a Chasid who left Stamford Hill and became a millionaire. But that’s not in the panto,” adds Cassenbaum of the porker who is played by the Australian Jewish comedian Josh Glanc.
“I really hope I’ve created something, along with everyone else involved, that really feels like it belongs to the British Jewish community, and maybe more specifically the London Jewish community,” says Cassenbaum. “They can come and see elements of themselves and their world, and they can laugh in recognition.”
The writer sees the Bubba as a “Sephardi survivor grandma” and the Dame as “your over-loving Jewish mother.” There is also a black cab driver played by a rat.
When I was a given a glimpse of rehearsals, director Abigail Anderson, who is not Jewish but has directed many a Christmas show, is running through what the show’s young producer Becky Plotnek describes as the chase scene. The action is also being watched by JW3’s chuckling director of programming, William Galinsky. Meanwhile, Pig, Dame, Bubbah, Red and Wolf are frantically looking for each other in a forest yet are choreographed in such a way that they never see each other. This traffic has to move fast and go like clockwork while also being synced to musical director Josh Middleton’s score, which he plays with casual virtuosity on his accordion.
“It’ll be fine, it’ll be fine,” he assures us before moulding his cast’s voices into a tightly harmonised version of Maoz Tzur.
During a bagel break William and producer Becky are joined by Debbie (the Dame) and Gemma (Red) to talk about what makes a panto Jewish.
William Galinsky: Jewish jokes! When I came here [in 2022] we were looking at how to bring families back post Covid. So I knew Nick Cassenbaum, a really interesting young, Jewish playwright, and I said it’s a bit late in the day (this was November last year) but would you be up for writing a panto for next year? And he said, yes and you’ve got to meet Becky Plotnek, a young Jewish producer who actually wants to do a Jewish panto.
Becky Plotnek: It was just a coincidence because I was looking into the idea of fusing panto with Jewish tradition and putting Jewish joy on stage. It felt a really important thing to do.
John Nathan: Is the timing significant – a Jewish comedy arriving at a time of great anxiety for the Jewish community?
Debbie Chazen: I think that anxiety is all around us. But coming into rehearsals every day is actually a complete joy and a breathing space. We are lucky enough to have a very empathetic, understanding company made up of Jews and non-Jews. Every Friday morning we sit in a circle and talk about how we’re feeling. And it’s very clear that how we’re feeling is very anxious. But we are [also] allowed to not think about it. I mean, obviously, it’s always in the background. But we know that doing this show is so joyous, it is our release.
Gemma Barnett: What I find personal hope in that this is a space for inclusivity welcoming all religions, people of all faith, no faith, into a space to observe joy. It’s Jewish, and the songs are Jewish, and that’s amazing. But I think what excites me is putting on a show about Jewish joy for an audience of all. I don’t want this to be an exclusively Jewish show for just a Jewish audience. And I think solidarity feels incredibly important at a time when minorities are pitted against each other.
JN: If minorities are pitted against each other, can Jewish panto bring them together?
WG: It’s a work that will take a number of years. But by doing a world-class panto with a great cast and a great writer and a great creative team, that is how we begin to do that.
DC: The best medicine is laughter. It, and joy and the singing, can heal the world. And, you know, it’s a very moving experience. I can imagine seeing at the end of this panto laughter along with tears in the audience, because it is such a cathartic release to spend time laughing, whether you’re part of that community or you’ve come because you’re interested in the culture.
GB: I think so much of the important work is interfaith solidarity. And, as you said, making sure Muslim people are coming to see something about Jewish joy and feeling a part of that, in the same way as Jewish people entering Muslim spaces, is incredibly important.
JN: Certainly Muslims will enjoy the pig gags as much as Jews.
BP: Me and Nick were talking about what fairy tale should we do. What’s going to be the most fun? And the idea of a pig crossing the threshold of JW3 is hilarious. But the other thing is that when I was a child what I always found so exciting was two worlds coming together and colliding. Like if I was watching a cartoon and a character from another cartoon appeared in that world, that was so exciting to me. I feel the fusion of two fairytales is going to be something that’s going to make the kids go wow.
WG: Three Little Pigs meets Little Red Riding Hood.
JN: Are you planning next year’s panto, William?
WG: Absolutely. I want us to be up there with the Hackney Empire panto and doing it year after year.
Back in warm San Francisco, Cassenbaum has the same idea.
“I’m really hoping it’s something we build that families can come to annually,” he says. “I’ve got plenty of ideas.”
Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Pig is at JW3 from 10 December to 7 January jw3.org.uk