Crisper and more tech-savvy, Lord of the Bling, the annual Christmas pantomime, staged by the Little Theatre, managed to keep traditions alive and yet demonstrate its relevance

Nineteen years of Christmas pantomimes. Nineteen years of packed shows. That’s no small achievement.

Remember, this is nineteen different casts, nineteen original scripts and nineteen individual stage settings. Drawing an audience is challenging at the best of times. Logically, drawing an audience for an admittedly old-fashioned show with a reputation for unapologetically trundling on for up to three hours would be even harder. Yet, the Little Theatre has about eight shows every year, all of which are routinely sold out. Whatever its flaws – and since this is a show staged largely by amateurs, flaws are inevitable — the fact that Little Theatre’s Christmas Pantomime has managed to keep its traditions alive, and yet evolve to stay relevant, is alone an accomplishment.

The production’s main challenge, especially over the past few years, has been to stay fresh, and this will become increasingly important in the future. Children are more sophisticated than ever before and adults more demanding. It’s an intriguing conundrum. How do you impress a contemporary audience with an old-fashioned format? The Little Theatre’s answer is to go the whole hog, and embrace nostalgia. After all, it’s the Christmas season. There couldn’t be a better time to celebrate the past.

Lavishly embellished

Hence the core of the Pantomime stays the same — after all, this is evidently a format that works with the city’s audiences. Lord Of The Bling which riffs off the year’s most popular movies, music and stories, is lavishly embellished: The acting is exaggerated, the story deliberately nonsensical and the script fairly fluid. While this eccentric unpredictability can be charming, it means that the production is exposed to the same weaknesses every year. Inscrutable storylines. And characters with potential who fail to connect simply because they’re reduced to caricatures.

Although this year’s production had both these problems, it also had unexpected strengths: a delightful supporting cast, familiar music with a twist and a host of amusing bells and whistles. Director Krishnakumar Balasubramanian added a graceful physical dimension to the play, ranging from elegant fight sequences to characters with overstated physicality. He also moved away from the production’s usual self-indulgent rambling, making it crisper, shorter and more tech-savvy.

The story, loosely based on The Hobbit, began with Frodo surrounded by a gang of kids playing villagers. As always, the children were cute, enthusiastic and disciplined. Another, even younger, gang emerged later in the story dressed like minions. Admittedly, the ‘minion’ connection was as wafer thin as the plot, but hats off to the Little Theatre for weaving so many little children into the story, because they certainly had fun.

There’s a Princess, who the hobbit seems to have a crush on despite the fact that “he's in the friend zone.” Robin Hood turns up. So does Gandalf, all fire and lightning. Three excitable ‘bad men’ with green faces appear next, followed by the pantomime’s fanciest villain yet: Loki (Abishek Joseph George) in a suit striped with gold and antelope-like helmet. He’s joined by a feisty Thor (Sunny Abraham) in a theatrical fight scene. Along with the lithe ‘Animal’ (Vikas Rao), these three bolstered the shaky story with their fluid movements, somersaults and kicks.

Then there were the Two Trees (Gladwin Rajkumar, Vishnu Krishnan), who, despite having non-speaking supporting roles, inched, minced and grimaced all over the stage till they very quickly became audience favourites.

Cross-dressing dame Queen Candy (Prashanth Oliver) took a while to warm up, but was in her element when she plunged into the audience, much to the delight of the children.

As the story goes, she’s the keeper of ‘The Bling,’ (“Because you don’t just take the bling. The Bling chooses you”), and in love with Thor. Gollum (Roshan Mathew) who like Rihanna is a good boy gone bad, was another nice surprise, playing his lonely character with quiet emotion. When he murmured, “Gollum wants a real friend,” the audience fell silent.

While the pantomime traditionally exults in the big moments, dance sequences and loud laughs, a moment like this is much more rewarding. It’s relatively easy to make people laugh. Forging a real connection, on the other hand, is hard. Good theatre, irrespective of genre, should draw people in, so they empathise with characters, not just watch them perform.

The pantomime has always been content with just being ‘fun’, choosing to distract audiences with sparkly sets, ambitious story lines and a mid-play toffee-laden Santa Claus. This year, however, the production didn’t just skim the surface. It took a step forward and showed glimpses of soul.