Pinocchio: No Strings Attached, where queer comedy meets adult pantomime

A decade into its celebrated programming of immensely popular raucous adult pantomime; Above The Stag theatre is delighted to announce it’s 2019 Christmas show PINOCCHIO: NO STRINGS ATTACHED. Above The Stag pantomimes have developed a cult following, blossoming into a staple ‘must-see’ for the theatrically adventurous and LGBT+ friendly, in London’s Christmas calendar.

Bringing a touch of Italian summer to London’s winter, Pinocchio: No Strings Attached is a glorious concoction of rude and irreverent comedy, songs, slapstick, spectacle and sweet-throwing from Above The Stag’s award-winning team, and a tale that reminds you: if you can’t find love, you can at least get wood. Following the narrative of the original story (with added nudge and winks galore), audiences are invited to sing, laugh and revel in a little obscenity as they watch this well-loved tale reimagined as a riotous, witty and very memorable adult panto.

Much-loved and a little feared by Above The Stag audiences, Matthew Baldwin returns with his unique brand of mischief to star as Geppetta, in his seventh ATS panto and his fifth dame for the company, following his widely acclaimed turn as Mother Goose. The cast also includes popular ATS panto faces Christopher Lane and Briony Rawle, both of whom are regular stars of the long-running global phenomenon Sh!tfaced Shakespeare.

PINOCCHIO: NO STRINGS ATTACHED is written by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper with original songs by Jon Bradfield. Bradfield and Hooper have written all Above The Stag’s pantomimes since 2009’s Dick Whittington: Another Dick in City Hall. Bradfield also wrote the widely praised Missing Alice, an episode of Mark Gatiss’ Queers series for BBC 4, starring Rebecca Front.

What makes an Above The Stag pantomime stand out against other adult offerings, is it’s unwavering dedication to theatrical quality – with seasoned musical director, choreographer, lighting and sounds designer, this is pantomime at its very finest, with added innuendo as only Above The Stag know how; perfectly blending the highest of quality show with low brow filth.

Co-writer Jon Bradfield said: “The original story of Pinocchio, written in 1881 is about a boy who is different to other boys, and who is seduced by the lure of the theatre. So, it’s ripe for a queer adult retelling. It’s also full of iconic moments – the whale, Toyland, and most memorably, what happens when Pinocchio lies – that we’re really looking forward to honouring. Or dishonouring.”

Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper are the authors of Above The Stag Theatre’s popular and acclaimed series of alternative pantomimes for adults, which annually sell out 50-performance runs. They have also collaborated on two musicals, most recently He Shoots He Scores about a gay football team, and a play set at the time of the Stonewall riots, A Hard Rain, which received productions in London and New York and is published by Nick Hern Books. Jon wrote Missing Alice, an episode of Mark Gatiss’ Queers series for BBC4 with Rebecca Front as Alice, and is developing projects with Leopard Pictures and Heap Mason Media. He has also contributed to the long-running News Revue at the Canal Cafe Theatre.

YASS Magazine talked with Jon about his latest collaboration with Martin – the Above the Stag Christmas Pantomime 2019 – “Pinocchio, No Strings Attached”

What’s the process for writing a panto? Do you write the story and songs at the same time? Or is it more of a step-by-step process?

We start by deciding on the setting and the characters. You look at the crucial characters you’d normally find in the story and work out how each of them fits into a panto role. Who’s the villain, who’s the hero, who’s the “Buttons”, who’s the dame? This year we’re taking on the story of Pinocchio – Geppetto becomes the dame, Geppetta, and is a bigger part of the story.

The Fox becomes a proper panto villain –  and we’ve invented a love interest for Pinocchio because it’s nice to have a prince. Except he’s actually a footballer. The setting is important because we like our pantos to exist in really specific worlds – it makes it more vivid, more alive. This year’s is set in a small Italian coastal town.

Then we start hammering out a story over a couple of pub sessions. We will then go away and break the story down scene by scene. Once that’s in place we write separately, swapping and redrafting and then meeting up to discuss whether or not the characters work and figure out the plot holes we hadn’t thought about! And I’ll be writing songs alongside that. Then at some point we put a draft in front of Andrew – the Director – and tear it apart, see what works, see what doesn’t, see how to better focus the story and start on draft 2.

How does writing a panto differ from other things you’ve both worked on? Is there anything more fun than writing for a pantomime dame?

There’s nothing on this earth more fun than writing for a pantomime dame, especially a pantomime dame played by Matthew Baldwin. He’s clever, fearless, generous and knows exactly how to work an audience.

The big difference is in panto you’re not just talking to the audience, you’re acknowledging them. That’s scary, and fun, for both cast and audience! And you can include gags for the sake of it – there’s an element of stand-up, and for all the timelessness of the stories a lot of references are very much about the past year. But what I find fascinating is: in panto you’re constantly saying “this isn’t real”. Every topical gag, every aside, every meta reference should take away from the power of the story – but it doesn’t. If you do it properly and without cynicism people still go “ahhh” or cheer at a happy ending. Stories are powerful!

And I guess unlike a lot of drama, you can hear what’s going on in the characters’ heads. They tell you. Unless we don’t want them to.

What was it about the tale of Pinocchio that appealed for an adaptation to an adult Panto? What parts of the original tale made the best parts of the script?

There’s something about Pinocchio being different to other boys that feels ripe for a sort of queer retelling. So, we have Pinocchio coming to life as a gay young man without any of the baggage. He fancies a guy but has no idea that boys fancying boys is a “thing”, or has a label, or is a source of shame. But there’s nothing intrinsically adult about that – you could do that story for eight-year olds if you left out the bl*wjob gags and didn’t tour it to schools in Birmingham.

I guess we’ve made Pinocchio a bit brattish at first which is truer to the original stories than the film. But honestly, it’s as much about “what story haven’t we done yet?”. With any panto story a lot of it’s about finding the iconic moments that the audience might remember, and then you can honour those or subvert them. The poisoned apple, the pumpkin coach, the flying carpet, the magic beans. In Pinocchio you’ve got the whale, you’ve got Toyland where naughty boys get drunk and turn into donkeys. And of course, Pinocchio’s nose, which grows when he lies. Which is obviously the first thing everyone mentions when we say we’re doing an adult version. I can’t think why! (Do you know it’s barely one plot point in the film, or book? It’s just a memorable image really.

Is there ever a time when you write a joke and wonder if it’s too rude? Or do you push each other to go further?

No! I take enormous pleasure in writing jokes that are so sexually direct or extreme that they get a gasp. I’m unbelievably immature, and also quite unshockable. Sex is quite earnest isn’t it – people frown in porn more than they smile – and it’s resiliently taboo, so it’s fun to take a step back and laugh at it. I honestly don’t even know what “too rude” would mean? That said, we write far more jokes that are plain silly than rude.

No, where a joke goes too far is when it ends up making someone sad. You can do that even while intending the opposite. I can think I’m writing a joke about racism for example, with the unintended effect that it just makes someone in the audience feel othered or objectified. That’s the kind of thing where you can go too far or at least that panto isn’t the right forum for it, or we’re not the right writers. My dear and right-on friend Maeve who comes each year usually manages to tell me if we’ve been inadvertently sexist! You learn, you learn always. It’s a cliché but don’t punch down.

Songs are such a big part of making the audience feel included in the show – do you workshop them? What’s the process?

There’s something about an opening number that says “it’s showtime!” isn’t there. The process is we decide where the songs go and what they’re for and then I write them – lyrics, melody, chords – then hand them to our brilliant arranger and MD Aaron Clingham. We don’t workshop them but we play around with them and Carole Todd puts some amazing choreography on them which helps! Some songs are about scene setting or creating a mood – excitement, sorrow, fear, romance. We try to put them in at key moments – Geppetta making her wish on a star; Pinocchio being lured away to become an actor; characters realising they’re in love for the first time. I’ve gone for an Italian folk and opera chorus vibe with some of them this year to give a sense of place. Obviously there’s a songsheet each year too. That gets the audience energised.

What’s each of your favourite part about watching the show come to life? Is there a point in the process that you enjoy the most?

I was trying to decide on an answer to this but at this point in the proceedings every moment I think of makes me nervous as well as excited! But I guess the first table-read with the cast is always pretty special. Seeing the set for the first time is a special moment too, this world that you have been carrying around in your head for the past few months has suddenly come to life. David Shields, our set designer always does an incredible job building a set that looks exactly like we have imagined it.

Why do you think pantomime is such a timeless artform? Do you ever see a time where panto won’t be a seasonal staple?

It’s adaptable. You can take the same handful of stories and endlessly evolve and update them to exist in a cartoon version of now. And not just in an “Uncle Vanya in a new version by Simon Stevens” kind of way. So I guess what we do each winter is we get together around the camp fire, keep the cold off, and pass these stories on. That’s quite timeless?

YASS Magazine met Matthew Baldwin the pantomime Dame and Star of 2019– Pinocchio – No Strings Attached!

This will be your seventh panto at Above The Stag – what keeps you coming back?

The Scripts. Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper just keep writing the most exceptional scripts, 100 times better than any other panto I have ever seen. Beyond that, the ATS pantomime is a unique beast.The Audiences are amazing, we greet each other like old friends. Over the years we have created a really stunning group of people who can really work magic. Andrew Beckett directs with such glee, David Shields designs sets that are a character in themselves, and we have an outstanding stable of actors to draw on.

From the pantos you’ve been in, what’s been your favourite character to play?

I have a lot of affection for my first, the Sherrif of Nottingham. I love all my Dames. Truly. This year she is a real cracker! Like Gina Lollobrigida got run over in Naples

How long does it take for you to get ready – do you do your own make-up?

I absolutely do! I feel no burden whatsoever to be as polished as a drag queen so I can usually get the whole lot on (costume too) in 40 minutes. It’s like warpaint for me. I slap it on and I go into battle

How much do you interact with the audience on a typical night – does it go beyond the traditional “oh no he isn’t”?

It goes way beyond that! Only the bravest souls sit on the front row. But our audiences are uniquely warm and funny. There’s plenty of banter, especially towards me, but it is never nasty. 

Is your preparation different for panto season compared to other acting roles?

Yes. I try to have a holiday just before we start rehearsals because it’s quite a punishing schedule and I try to stay healthy. I usually lose my voice about a week after we open!

I always put a lot of thought into my dames, which is interesting because, let’s face it, they always turn out the same ha ha! Sexually frustrated middle-aged women – it must say something about me.

What’s your favourite part of panto season? And… what’s the most challenging part?

It’s always a challenge to get it learnt in time. And many people wait for me to make mistakes, especially early on! But really there is no negative to this gig. It’s the best gig in town bar none. My favourite moment is always at the end of the show when the final rhyming couplets are given out to the audience. They always ask the audience to be loving and kind to one another and it is really the heart of our show. Makes me feel quite emotional. That and the hot sex.

Why do you think pantomime is such a timeless artform? Do you ever see a time where panto won’t be a seasonal staple?

Pantomime is utterly timeless. The stories are told in a very childlike way. It is always about family. The characters live in places like “along the lane” or “on top of the hill”. It takes us all back to being children. It’s wonderfully liberating. We keep to all those traditions and the audience is always “the boys and girls”. The boys and girls are always the boys and girls. They might think they are all grown up and cool but I can assure you, not to me they’re not! They are very naughty boys and girls.

Panto will always be a staple, it’s a natural way to tell stories. Look at a series of movies like Shrek – it’s pure panto. Pixar so copied us.

More information:

Pinocchio is directed by Andrew Beckett, Above The Stag’s Artistic Director. As well as helming seven previous pantomimes, Beckett’s recent shows for ATS include the OFFIE-winning Grindr: The Opera and Jonathan Harvey’s Boom Bang-A-Bang. He has also directed at Theatre Royal Windsor, the Royal Court and the Pleasance, and many classic plays for Paul Taylor Mills’ rep seasons at Sidmouth.

It is designed by ATS regular David Shields, whose career spans multiple arena tours to fringe productions and whose recent designs include Heathers The Musical (West End), Beautiful Thing and Grindr: The Opera (Above The Stag) and tours of End of the Rainbow and Little Shop of Horrors.



19th Nov – 11th Jan

19.30 (Tues – Fri), 15:30 & 19:30 (Sat), 14:00 & 18:00 (Sun)

72 Albert Embankment London, SE1 7TP

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