New stage competish for panto

A few London theaters counter-program during holiday season

Tantalized by the prospect of big bucks from families over the holidays season, London’s repertory theaters have traditionally seized the excuse of Christmas to abandon serious programming. And almost every regional theater builds up cash reserves by opening its doors to the unabashedly vulgar, uniquely British and untranslatable institution of pantomime (aka “panto”), a very broad-brush mix of traditional fairy tale, vaudeville, song ‘n’ dance, audience participation, comedy cross-dressing and slapstick.

But a few years ago, artistic directors began to realize that many audiences want alternatives to tinsel.

Although the Donmar Warehouse has never done a panto, it used to program a tuner in the winter slot to win audiences. Last year, though, the theater counterprogrammed the new play “Red,” and it worked: the show sold out and subsequently swept the Tonys.

This year, while the Donmar is more fully acknowledging the family, it’s the less-than-happy one of “King Lear.” Helmed by Donmar a.d. Michael Grandage with the entire “Red” production team, the notably strong cast that includes Tom Beard, Gina McKee, Justine Mitchell and Alec Newman is headed by Derek Jacobi.

“Derek and I have been talking about this since 2002,” says Grandage, who directed Jacobi in “The Tempest,” “Twelfth Night” and “Don Carlos.” “The role is something of an inevitability in an actor’s life. For us it was a question of when and how. The closeup version seemed to us to be the most exciting way forward.”

In the Donmar’s 250-seat venue, they’re aiming for a more distilled, less naturalistic production than this grand-scale play often elicits. And there’s clearly an appetite for it: The three-month run opening in December has sold out (aside from day seats) and the eight-week U.K. tour is selling well. Gotham audiences can see the show in a five-week run at Brooklyn Academy of Music, or can catch it in literal closeup when it’s aired via satellite to cinemas for the National Theater’s worldwide NT Live screening program.

When Kevin Spacey took over the Old Vic, he famously went down the panto route with Ian McKellen donning drag in “Aladdin.” McKellen’s performance was triumphant; the production considerably less so. But this year’s family entertainment is in the altogether more trustworthy hands of Richard Eyre, who is helming a new production of Feydeau’s most famous farce, “A Flea in Her Ear.”

“Farce needs to be treated seriously for it to work,” says producer Kate Pakenham.

The version performed is adapted by John Mortimer, penned for the Old Vic in the 1960s, when it starred Albert Finney.

It’s a feather in their cap that in the double central role of suspected philandering husband and manic footman at a notorious hotel, Eyre’s production stars comedy fireball Tom Hollander.

But traditionalists shouldn’t fret. There’s still plenty of pantomime to go around, with attractions including the Hoff as Hook — that is to say, David Hasselhoff starring as the villain in a version of “Peter Pan.”

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