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Peter Pan villain Ace Bhatti explains why Bromley is still hooked on panto

PUBLISHED: 09:49 14 December 2012

Ace Bhatti as Captain Hook with Andrew Agnew as Smee

Ace Bhatti as Captain Hook with Andrew Agnew as Smee

© Robert Workman

"It's often people's first experience of theatre," says Bromley's pantomime villain Ace Bhatti during rehearsals for his role as Captain Hook at The Churchill.

Ace Bhatti as Captain HookAce Bhatti as Captain Hook

Panto has become part of UK tradition as punters young and old flock to their local theatre or halls for a few hours of contained chaos.

The art form has become a meld of various traditions over the centuries, stealing the element of song and dance from the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte and adapting the comedic presence of the 18th century Harlequinade.

It’s a type of theatre that owes its longevity and success to its ability to evolve despite its limited repertoire that traditionally includes Aladdin, Cinderella and, of course, Peter Pan.

In recent years Bromley’s Churchill Theatre has scooped major coups in attracting star names such as Steve Guttenberg and Starsky himself, Paul Michael Glaser, that have seen national press coverage. But panto has yet to crack America – meaning the likes of Guttenberg and Glaser had to be educated on what the genres is, according to the Churchill’s general manager Chris Glover. He said: “How do you describe what panto is without experiencing it?

Steve Guttenberg appeared in Cinderlla at The Churchill Theatre in 2008.Steve Guttenberg appeared in Cinderlla at The Churchill Theatre in 2008.

“It’s as traditional as Christmas pudding and is probably the centre piece of our season year on year.

“So many people come through our doors and we raise our performances from eight a week to 12. The success is based on the fact that it’s for everyone, from two-year-olds to 102-year-olds.”

For actors, the panto is a chance to become a kid again, dressing up and “prancing” is a chance to relive early childhood memories of theatre.

This year’s Captain Hook, former EastEnders baddie Ace Bhatti, says it’s the opportunity to play some of the best characters around in front of a large audience with big name actors.

He said: “My first panto was in Nottingham as a small boy and I thought it was great to sit in a posh box and watch these people on stage – until I realised I was in the wrong place and we were supposed to be in the cheap seats.

“I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t want to play Hook, the vanity in the man and flaws in his character are so great. Live audiences are brilliant because they’re different every night. Sometimes they’re quiet and other times they’re loud. Plus, you get to prance around in silly outfits.”

The West Wickham Pantomime Society has been performing since 1945, rotating the classic shows and even introducing Frankenstein to the Christmas canon.

Co-director of this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk production, David Warsop, has been putting on a frock for around 26 years as the classic Dame. He puts the everlasting success of the theatre genre down to its ability to please all ages and bring communities closer.

“It’s audience participation and one of the only things where you can join in and no one will turn around and tell you to shut up.

“You need a baddie, a hero and a good double-act who come on in bursts. There’s definitely a formula and the classics always work.”

Whether it’s for fun or funds, and whether it’s big names or local dames – panto truly is a British tradition that survives because of its ability entertain all ages.

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