The Boomkak Panto Review: A Joyful Return to the Theatre for Sydneysiders

Picture this: it’s 6pm, it’s been a long day and you’ve just finished work. You’re tired, and you just realised you’ve made plans with friends to go to the theatre. Sigh. The show looks great and you were excited when you booked the tickets, but now you’re regretting it, and you’re too tired to go out. 

Now, there are two types of theatre productions:

  1. The type you want to go to after a long day of work. These are the fun ones, the musicals, the comedies, the silly ones. See: Six, The Wharf Revue, Hot Mess at KXT, The Play That Goes Wrong, anything from The Sydney Comedy Festival.
  2. The type you need to prepare yourself for, the big serious Shakespeares that everyone tells you that you just have to go see, so that you can feel worldly and cultured and brag about it at dinner parties. These might be very good and challenging, but they are often not what you’re in the mood for after a long day at work when you’re tired. See any Shakespeare or classic play from the canon. 

I am delighted to announce that Belvoir’s returning production, The Boomkak Panto, is in the first category. The Boomkak Panto is a very silly, very funny piece of theatre, which will make your return to theatre a joy.

The rural NSW town of Boomkak is under threat from the greedy plans of The Big Developer (Rob Johnson, a villainous delight). To respond, the townspeople decide they must put on a show to “save the town!”. Exactly how they will save the town is vague, but that’s kind of the point. It’s panto! It’s slapdash! As Playwright / Actor / Co-Director Virginia Gay anounces when she’s explaining panto to the audience: “If it looks organised, you’re doing it wrong”. 

Rob Johnson steals the show in his duel roles of Big Developer and Butch. Photography: Brett Boardman.

The Boomkak Panto, written by Virginia Gay, and co-directed by Virgina Gay and Richard Carroll, is a love lettter to small aussie communities, and the art form of theatre itself. A classic entry into the ‘show-within-a-show’ genre, it is full of audience interaction, and self-aware humour about rehearsals, auditions and the chaos of trying to stage a performance despite the world falling apart. It feels a bit like an Australian version of one of my favourite shows ever: UK based Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Goes Wrong.

In her writer’s notes, Virginia Gay explains that she conceived of Boomkak as “a fairytale village”: 

“A little microcosm, a dream of what Australia *could* be, if we only pulled our fingers out and gave slightly more of a shit. Seen and heard First Nations elders, welcomed and integral-to-the-community refugee families, a queer AF love story at its heart and a thousand in-jokes specifically designed for Sydney theatreloving audiences.”

-Virginia Gay, Writer’s Notes

Virginia Gay’s little village is focused on three Boomkak families. There’s Parnia and Yazmin, a mother and daughter from Iran, (Deborah Galanos and Mary Soudi). There’s Zoe (played by Zoe Terakes, a nonbinary, trans masculine actor), and their father Darren (Kamilaroi and Kooma man Billy McPherson). There’s John (a hilarious Toby Truslove who gets all the best lines), a failed D-List actor, and his wife, Alison (Virginia Gay).

Photography: Brett Boardman

Amongst this cast of heroic optimists we have the villains of our piece, both played by a show-stealing Rob Johnson. And yes, please do “Boo” as they come on stage! First, there’s the nefarious Big Developer, (to get the vibe, listen to “Progress” from Muriel’s Wedding The Musical). Secondly there’s Butch, your typical white, straight, Aussie bloke who makes casually racist and homophobic comments. 

The story begins in teen angst, with Zoe trying to win Yazmin’s heart back. These two used to date (and their chemistry is palpable) but Yazmin’s traditional mother Parnia struggles to understand Zoe’s identity as a trans non-binary teenager with ‘they/them’ pronouns, and pushes Yazmin to date Butch, the conventional choice instead. In between the plotline of ‘Saving Boomkak With Panto’, this slow-burn queer love story between Zoe and Yazmin is the real heart of the show.

In the writer’s notes, Virginia Gay admits that she wrote this play to honour Zoe Terakes, a trans non-binary actor. By centring the trans character of Zoe in her writing, and making the queer love story between Zoe and Yazmin the focus of this story, Gay has done something impressive and radical. Although the Belvoir stage is no stranger to progressive politics, authentic trans representation on our stages and screens is still relatively new. 

Zoe and Yazmin, Teens in Love (played by Zoe Terakes and Mary Soudi). Photography: Brett Boardman

Only in the past decade or so have we seen more mainstream representation of transgender stories, with the arrival of 2013 TV Show Orange Is The New Black, 2014 TV show Transparent, and 2015 film The Danish Girl. However, it is only very recently that it has become industry practice to actually cast transgender actors in these stories, rather than cisgender actors (as was the case with male, cisgender actor Eddie Redmayne, who earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of a transgender woman in The Danish Girl). So for The Boomkak Panto to have Terakes, a trans actor playing a trans character that was written for them, feels genuinely progressive and I applaud Belvoir and Eamon Flack for programming this story.

At times, the show’s best parts (the witty writing, the charming performances, the uplifting progressive message) felt overshadowed by its worst part: the self-indulgent length. The Boomkak Panto is 2.5 hours with an intermission, which simply feels too long for the lighthearted, silly show that Belvoir is going for. Today’s audiences have much shorter attention spans, and more and more audiences are going to the theatre to see short, sweet shows of ninety minutes and under. Nowadays, I believe that theatre makers have to earn an intermission rather than just assuming that’s what audiences want. Certain shows come with an intermission assumed, like well-known musicals or famous classical plays. But even then an intermission is not guaranteed. Case in point: Sydney Theatre Company’s Julius Caesar is on right now at Wharf 1, and runs two hours straight through with no intermission. 

I am not against intermissions on principle, but I think a show has to earn them and The Boomkak Panto simply doesn’t. There are a lot of scenes which feel repetitive or unnecessary, and the show tries to up the stakes right before intermission by introducing another plot crisis which doesn’t add much to the story. Although my audience was having fun, the show stagnated in the second act, and relied too much on having a musical number every 15 minutes to revive the momentum. Buried in this bloated 2.5 hour show is a really brilliant, funny, moving 100-minute musical. I wish Virginia Gay had found it, before bringing this to the stage. 

Overall, I still had fun, and would recommend this show for anyone wanting a light-hearted, entertaining night out. Most of us haven’t had the chance to go to the theatre in five months, and this show feels like the theatrical equivalent of a warm hug. If you are looking for something to raise your spirits at the end of a long work day, this is what I would recommend. 

Jo Bradley

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