The Stanley Halls in South Norwood plays host to Eunice! The Musical from 14 December (school shows) and 19 December (public shows). This is the latest family extravaganza from Mama G and Petite Pantos. I asked the show’s creator (and the alter ego of Mama G), Robert Pearce, to tell us a bit more about this new Christmas treat.
First of all, let’s chat a bit about Mama G. I watched your FamilyPrideParty earlier in the year and know you mix drag and storytelling, but where did the idea come from?
RP: Mama G was created in 2018. She’s a pantomime dame who tells stories about being who you are and loving who you want, to children and their families. She came to life when we were presenting Mother Goose at that year’s Brighton Fringe and needed a more ‘outside the box’ promotional idea than just handing out flyers.
As a story, Mother Goose is about loving who you are and loving the people you surround yourself with. And historically, Mother Goose is a storyteller. With the increasing popularity of Drag Queen Story Hour in the US and some iterations here in the UK, it struck me that a panto dame doing the same thing would be perfect. I chose the name Mama G to make her sound a bit more modern and then headed off to the Cowley Club to tell some stories!
Making Eunice! into a musical sounds like fun. How has the creative process been during lockdown and social distancing?
RP: Eunice! is being created BECAUSE of lockdown, which is a really interesting way to approach a brand new musical. Initially, we were presenting the Stanley Halls’ first pantomime; but pantos really rely on a ‘pack mentality’ from the audience, which is really difficult with social distancing. We want our first panto at the Stanley Halls to be an absolute WOW and we were nervous we wouldn’t be able to achieve that with all the current restrictions. And so Eunice! was born.
So far, it’s been a relatively stress free process. Myself and Joanna Taylor (who is writing the music and lyrics) have worked together before creating songs for Mama G’s live shows. Joanna really understands the work of the company and is a perfect fit, so it hasn’t felt that difficult.
Amée Smith who is the other producer and will be looking after the show day to day has known me since we both trained together at Rose Bruford College and has a way of understanding what I want before even I do. Working with Joanna and Amée has made the process so easy that it has been a joy.
I think we were probably one of the first theatre companies to hold in situ auditions (when everything briefly looked like it was getting better!). We were all socially distancing, but we saw a crazy talented line up of performers who were all really grateful to be asked to do their craft again. It was quite an emotional day for lots of us.
Tell me how Petite Pantos fits into the panto scene, and how you get young audiences to engage with the work.
RP: Petite Pantos was created to prove that panto is a vital and important part of our cultural landscape – rather than a throwaway commercial venture at Christmas. I have long believed that panto can play a big part in influencing and opening the minds of the future and has the ability to start conversations on important topics with every single generation of a family.
Our pantos have unabashedly discussed Brexit, Windrush, sexuality, gender equality, and the Trump administration in ways that are engaging, enlightening and fun. Panto has the ability to reach a much wider audience than a lot of other theatre and we have not shied away from engaging that audience in important discussions, followed by screaming “it’s behind you!”
Our main way of engaging young audiences with the work is to engage their grown-ups. Our pantomimes aren’t a creche service where adults can mentally check out – our pantomimes work best when everyone is engaged and having a good time.
Young people look to their adults to understand how to behave in new situations, so we make sure that adults are intellectually stimulated and comfortable to laugh and join in with abandon. When children see this behaviour, they know it is a safe environment for them to do the same and then they can enjoy all the silly things panto has for the kids – fart jokes, food fights, Baby Shark and a wonderful story!
Eunice! plays with the traditional horsey stories that engage young people, but with a bit of magic and adventure. Is it Black Beauty with a bit of a sparkle, and was this element important to the creation of the original story?
RP: Eunice the Horse came to me on a drive to Luton. but the name didn’t sound right and I couldn’t work out where it had come from. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that it was a story about identity and discovering who you are – which finished with the name Eunice sounding right. It wasn’t a conscious decision to write a story about a horse in order to appeal to a young audience; but it certainly has proven to be one of Mama G’s most popular stories.
I think the popularity is also helped by the fact that it is very magical, the journey is self-discovery is something we have all experienced (especially as children) and Eunice meets lots of wonderful characters on her adventure – who are all in the musical and fleshed out in the most surprising and exciting ways.
You’ve released a song from the show, Touch the Sky (which I loved, by the way) so that anyone can video themselves singing it. Donations go to the Mermaids charity. Was it very important to you that this happened in advance of the show?
RP: Thank you! I’m so glad you like the song!
Releasing a song from a new musical is great way of engaging potential audiences and letting them know what to expect from the show – so it was always our plan to do it. When I first heard Touch the Sky though, I knew it had to be the one that we released. It feels universal – everyone has dreams of taking flight in aspects of their life. And it has such a beautiful melody.
It was Joanna’s idea that we release the song for people to sing their own versions and we chose to do this and continue our support for Mermaids – an incredible charity that supports transgender young people, their families and the people who work with them. I’m very proud that supporting Mermaids has allowed us to wear our hearts on our sleeves and support everyone’s right to be who they are.
Stanley Halls sounds an interesting venue. What should audiences coming to see Eunice! expect to find there?
RP: The Stanley Halls is a beautiful and historic venue. Over time the theatre has been a school hall and sat empty – so there is no fixed seating in the stalls. This has made social distancing really easy, as families will be able to sit at tables in their own bubble.
During the pandemic, the Stanley Halls has continued to operate and be incredibly innovative in making sure that South London is culturally enriched and keeping safe! They’ve hosted outside gigs and drag shows, presented pay-what-you-can children’s shows and really led the way in streaming high quality professional performances.
So, when our audience arrives they know that they are going to be in very safe hands and their families are going to have a wonderful experience at the theatre.
Santa will be making an appearance in the show too – which is amazing, because it’s his busiest time of the year; but, to make it worth his while, the Stanley Halls are building him a grotto so that he can meet his fans after the show!
Mama G is a creation which engages children with people who may be very different to those they see every day. Is it as important to educate as well as entertain through the character and her stories?
RP: I think that art has to have a purpose and exist for a reason, so it is incredibly important to me that what Mama G does is both educational and entertaining. Making things fun also takes the fear out of them (for adults) and lets children know that these are serious topics – but not challenging ones.
It’s important for people to see that people who are different to them exist and that difference isn’t automatically scary. At the same time, people who are part of communities that could be thought of as “different” get to see themselves represented in stories and shows. It’s important that both groups get a message of being valued and that being who they are is ok.
One of the gifts of pantomime is that it does have the power to educate and entertain and I’m so proud that I have been able to harness these abilities in the warm and fun-loving character of the pantomime dame!
Finally, what’s coming up next for Mama G?
RP: Mama G will be appearing in Little Red Riding Hood at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in January (more details soon!) and the first story she ever told, The Fairies Fran and Vera, will be available in book form very soon!
In the meantime, Mama G will continue to tell stories via Facebook (and in person when allowed) and look intolerably glamorous on Instagram! Hopefully, Mama G will be taking to some stages for LGBT History Month and February half-term and plans will soon be underway for a physical version of her Family Pride Party! Watch this space!
My thanks to Robert and to Amée Smith, who facilitated the interview. Image credits: Petite Pantos.
To purchase tickets to see Eunice! The Musical you can visit https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/stanleyhalls.
To utilise the song Touch the Sky, in exchange for a donation to Mermaids, go to https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/mama-g. If you upload your recording to Facebook or Instagram using the hashtags #EuniceMusical #TouchTheSky you may be in with a chance of winning a pair of tickets to see Eunice! on stage.