STORYLINES: A scene from Rapunzel, directed by Pooja Ghai (Photo by: Scott Rylander)

by LAUREN CODLING

A PANTOMIME “celebrating diversity” is being staged at a top London theatre over the festive period.

Rapunzel, currently showing at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, over Christmas and the New Year, is directed by Kenya-born Pooja Ghai, an associate director at the theatre for three years.

Ghai said she hoped the show’s central message of sisterhood and “everyone being different” comes through to audiences.

“We all may come from different places, we all may look very different, but actually, if we work together and come together and collaborate, our differences are what make us stronger,” she told Eastern Eye.

“It’s about celebrating all of us in all of our glory instead of polarising our attitudes which, I think, is a really important message at the moment.”

Juliet Okotie and Raj Bajaj star in Rapunzel (Photo by: Scott Rylander)

Diversity within the arts is something that theatres, directors and production teams should address, Ghai said. As a woman of colour, she added, her instinct is to push for diversity in her shows.

“We need to start celebrating different cultures and different colours because we live in quite a polarised world,” the former actress said. “If our theatres become as polarised as the political world we live in, we are going to lose the kind of magic of theatre and storytelling.

“We live in a multicultural city, we should be celebrating it.”

In her opinion, when audiences see a mix of culture and colour on the stage without it being a big issue about quotas would be a “good day”.

“I think we still have a long way to go, but we are aware of the work we must continually do,” she said.

Pooja Ghai (Source: Twitter)

Ghai spent most of her childhood in Kenya, so she acknowledged her introduction to the panto genre came a lot later than most other children.

“I got to know [panto] when I came to England in my teens,” she recalled. “It is quite a traditional genre here. It’s a big part of every year in most theatres, so my love for it has organically grown through the years.”

Directing a pantomime was an “exciting” challenge for Ghai. She has worked on a number of shows, including political drama Lions and Tigers in the summer, but this is her debut panto.

“The challenges are embracing different forms of storytelling and how you present it to an audience that ranges from the age of three to 70 and making it accessible and fun for everybody,” she said.

Rapunzel is a story that Ghai said she had not seen in pantomime often, so it gave her and the team a chance to use it as a template and introduce their own creative input.

Original lyrics and story by Trish Cook and Robert Hyman were worked upon over the course of a year.

Stephen Hoo and Joanne Sandi star in Rapunzel (Photo by: Scott Rylander)

Pantomimes, which have been part of British tradition since the early 1800s, are traditionally shown at Christmas.

Ghai believes the custom is popular over the festive period because families visit the theatre together, and the content is suitable for all ages.

“Panto gives families the chance [to come together] and get a story that has these archetypes in it – the protagonist and a hero and a villain which the whole family can enjoy together,” she said. “With panto, it can extend to all the generations because we have jokes for the adults that might go over the kid’s heads.

“That’s why its popularity will never die and nor should it, because it is a special time for families to go out together. That is why most pantos have moral stories – it’s a great way to teach about loving each other and doing good by each other and treating each other well.”