Hong Kong Players panto The Snow Queen moves to Kellett School theatre

A British stage tradition, the Christmas pantomime nearly didn’t happen this year with a mad search for a venue, but the show will go on. Oh yes it will

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 December, 2016, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 December, 2016, 6:02pm

On Boxing Day 1889 the Hong Kong Amateur Dramatic Corps presented Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves – and a local Christmas pantomime tradition was born.

According to one newspaper report at the time, it opened with “splendid spectacular effects, light and appropriate music, a dazzling transformation scene, and a rollicking harlequinade”. The church, however, was appalled, although no amount of clerical head shaking could stop further panto productions in the British colony.

In 1891’s Beauty and the Beast, a reviewer reported that “the indiscreet censure lately passed by the bishop upon the pantomime was noticed in a verse or so and a comical but somewhat misplaced representative of his lordship appeared in the harlequinade”. The reports, unearthed by the late Carl T. Smith in a 1982 article on local amateur dramatics, indicate that teasing, topical humour has always been a feature of pantos.

Nearly 130 years later, the church has got over its outrage and Hong Kong audiences can still join in the annual rite of booing, hissing and shouting “he’s behind you!” Except this year, it very nearly didn’t happen.

“Due to renovations at our usual home, the Shouson Theatre [in the Hong Kong Arts Centre], the panto had to go on tour,” says Teri Fitsell, who is in charge of publicity at Hong Kong Players – a descendent of the Amateur Dramatic Society, founded in 1844 – and has co-written numerous panto scripts.

“Last year, we had the great thrill of staging it as the opening act of the Udderbelly Festival Hong Kong – inside an inflatable, upside down purple cow. But this year with the Shouson still shut we struggled to find a venue. At one stage, we thought it may not happen – for the first time in 54 years.”

Hong Kong Players shall go to the ball

Eventually, the Players decided that keeping the tradition going was worth making the ultimate concession: moving the show to the other side of the harbour where the Snow Queen will terrorise and delight at the Kellett School theatre in Kowloon Bay until December 18. Fitsell says ticket sales have been good despite the move.

The Christmas pantomime has its roots in 16th century Italian commedia dell’arte (comedy of the profession), where masked actors improvised on stage, but its modern form is quintessentially British: the addiction to off-colour humour, horrible puns, cross-dressing gags and ritualistic audience participation as traditional as the liturgical responses.

So how has it survived in Hong Kong, where Brits make up fewer than half a per cent of the total population and where British cultural influences have waned in the 19 years since the Union Jack was lowered for the last time?

Fitsell says it comes down to the incorporation of local flavours and the universal appeal of slapstick.

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“For the past 10 to 12 years, the Players have written our own scripts, which means they are far more pertinent to Hong Kong. Also, everybody likes a bit of fun. There are few places in theatre where you are encouraged to make a noise, join in and boo,” she says.

There are probably still a few more Western faces in the audience but the proportion of Chinese ticket buyers and actors has been on the increase, she adds, and everybody loves the fact that politicians and familiar places are targets for some gentle ribbing.

So here are some of the best bad jokes from recent pantos.

1 Dick: I’ll have you know, I learned a great deal toiling night and day under Dame Trifle. Nobody knows as much as me about her range of pies: there was apple pie, cherry pie …

Puss: Now we’re in Hong Kong, we have Occu-Pie!

(Puss in Boots, 2014)

2 Dame: Such a lovely cosmopolitan atmosphere in the bars in Wan Chai, and such a refreshing inter-generational mix. Touching to see so many “mature” men taking care of those sweet young girls.

(Cinderella, 2015)

3 Shazza: Now we’re moving up in the world we’ll finally be able to move off Lamma.

Bazza: And buy some soap!

(Little Red Riding Hood, 2012)

The Snow Queen, Hong Kong Players, Kellett School, 7 Lam Hing Street, Kowloon Bay. Until December 18. Tickets: HK$250-HK$290. Inquires: hongkongplayers.com