"Ours is a slightly new genre..."
When Finsbury Park's Park Theatre opened its doors in May 2013, its web site proudly proclaimed "There's a new tradition afoot in N4."
This was not in relation to the new theatre, which has since then presented world premières, UK premières, classic revivals and new writing, as well as seeing Maureen Limpman treading the boards in a venue supported by Sean Mathias, Celia Imrie, Alan Rickman and Ian McKellen, but rather in relation to its first ever Christmas show Sleeping Beauty.
With talk in the production's press literature of the traditional tale receiving a "facelift", I went to meet Park Theatre's Artistic Director Jez Bond to find out what audiences can expect.
I met Bond in the Park Theatre's cafe, which is full of local residents enjoying their morning coffee and booking tickets for the season ahead. It is easy to see how the building has won the hearts of both press and public, which is something Bond is very proud of. As we sit down to talk, Hazel the dog joins us. "She'll be starring in the show," Bond informs me. "She tweets, she's been interviewed, she's been in many, many of the papers, lovely for the kids and she'll be in the foyer beforehand selling programmes."
With all of the production's literature referring to Sleeping Beauty as Park Theatre's Christmas pantomime, I ask Bond why he perhaps chooses to call it by another name?
"When I talk about it, I call it a Christmas musical," he says, before going on to explain why. "It's all original music and it's all very much written from the starting point of being a good play, being a strong farce with lots of exciting characters and subplots and everyone has a journey that they go on."
Bond is no stranger to the world of pantomime, having directed productions at the Watford Palace Theatre and Salisbury Playhouse; however, prior to this Bond admits he had only ever seen two pantomimes, one at the Oxford Playhouse in his twenties and one as a child growing up. Working at Watford and Salisbury provided Bond with the opportunity to experience the genre first hand and made him question and challenge the genre as he encountered it on a daily basis.
Having previously directed Joanna Read and Stuart Thomas's version of Sleeping Beauty at Salisbury Playhouse in 2006, which featured co-writer Mark Cameron as the Dame, Bond tells me he's particularly enjoyed re-visiting a title he knows so well. "There's something exciting about having the freedom to do it from scratch and do it slightly differently," he says. "We're sort of slightly genre bending and telling it how we want to tell it."
"Ours is a slightly new genre," he explains, "straddling panto and a Christmas show." In an interview with The Guardian in June, Bond remarked that he was "a rebel" and "revamping the genre", before referring to Sleeping Beauty as "the panto for people who hate pantos". But what did he mean by this?
"People who don't like panto don't like the kind of very garish nature of it in terms of the aesthetic," he tells me. "They don't like the fact that it doesn't really make sense, that you're asked to forget so much logic because you have lines that you don't believe anybody would say. Rattigan or Ibsen wouldn't write like that, but in panto you can just have someone coming on and saying "Ah, we should go to the castle now!" But where's that coming from? Where's the motivation? No, that's not good enough for us, we want to do something cleverer than that."
"Ours is written where every line is there, every word is there for an absolute purpose, which is great because it doesn't alienate the people who don't care about it, but the people who do care about it, who are the more average theatregoers who think panto's not for them, will really appreciate it as well."
Bond and Cameron's approach to writing Sleeping Beauty has led to pantomime's traditional narrative structure being dispensed with completely. As he explains, "I don't think it would be normal that you meet most Good Fairies in the fifth scene at a book launch, where she's launching her book Inherently Good and she's talking to a live audience at a signing; that's where we meet our Fairy."
In their new pantomime sub-genre, Bond and Cameron have also struck off other key genre conventions. "I remember there was a sort of thing about the Fairy always has to enter Stage Left or always Stage Right or something," Bond recalls. "No, no, that's nonsense. We mix it all up," he laughs. "This is just a play with some of these elements in there."
Sleeping Beauty will feature a cast of six performers, who will have three weeks in the rehearsal room before opening night. Bond admits that whittling the actor-base down to so few "took a little bit of thought", but is excited about the prospect of multi-roling. "All of the characters play one, two, three, four other parts for little scenes here and there, which is really nice, so that becomes something a little bit different and something fun to watch as well."
'Different' and 'fun' appear to be two key words in Bond's Christmas show vocabulary; words which are also relevant to the production's aesthetic.
"We have got the lovely Victor Craven doing animation," Bond enthuses, "and so the whole of our back wall is going to be alive. Sometimes you'll be able to see a static backdrop, then it will change and there will be animated sections happening and there'll be like a moving map and we'll see the characters on their journey, so it'll be really, really, kind of aesthetically rich."
Having previously discussed what Bond believes people hate about pantomime, I ask him what he thinks they like?
"I think what people's favourite thing about pantomime is that it's something for the whole family," he replies. "It's inclusive and you can join in. And you will be able to join in ours, just not all the time and in a slightly more considered way."
"We've got a lot of comedy in the script, we've got some magic, we've got the Witch and we've got the Fairy and there'll be bits of magic and puffs of smoke and all of those things that will excite and titillate," he says.
Since 2005, the Lyric Hammersmith has proven that by mixing genre conventions and tearing up the rule book, new forms of the genre are born which engage and entertain both new and existing audiences. Pantomime has always embraced this and indeed its willingness to evolve is key to its very survival. Impossible to define on account of the many ways its conventions and practices can be employed, new traditions form all the time and prove just how complex the artform is.
"We're not set in our ways," Bond concludes. "I'm excited to see how it goes down this year and then we'll adapt and grow." Just like the characters in this year's Sleeping Beauty, Bond and Park Theatre are about to start their own journey. "Let's see and let's grow with our audience and see what they want," he says. The adventure has just begun...
Sleeping Beauty runs at Park Theatre, Finsbury Park, London from 11 December 2013 to 19 January 2014.