Capping off my 2022 and ringing in the 2023 theatre season, I saw THE LITTLE PINKO HEN (or how the Cat got RatiCATized) at Red Sandcastle Theatre, the first in-person presentation from Panto Players since the pandemic began. Though it is my first experience of it, this is a Leslieville tradition going on ten years now. All the familiar pantomine elements are here: a classic children’s tale reworked for cheeky, self-aware, rambunctious spectacle.
The title refers to The Little Red Hen, but this story pulls elements from a variety of other stories. There’s a little Hansel and Gretel, some Chicken Little and a hefty heap of Animal Farm. Our villain, Felon Must, having bought Old MacDonald’s farm, decides to fatten the animals up to eat, but later decides to exploit their talents for profit instead. Regardless of tactic, he wants to make billions off the blood, sweat and tears of his underlings.
Looking stiff and gangly in his suit, relishing the boos like a proper panto baddy, Evan Klim offers a portrait of awkward villainy as Felon Must. Obviously a play on Elon Musk, he has rebranded the farm as a conglomerate called Cheaper (Cheeper?)—its little blue bird logo front and center stage completes the joke. As the animals band together to thwart his evil plans, their differing strategies poke fun of Capitalist vs. Communist ideological squabbling.
This spirit of revolution begins with the show’s program, placed prominently on all the seats, which takes the form of a Marxist propaganda pamphlet. With a cat and chicken posing as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, you get the vibe right away. When the hen starts to rally us into a rebellious spirit, the Russian national anthem soaring, there’s some grand and goofy magic in the air.
With a few clunky plot points and some muddled themes, combined with some inside running jokes; I was sometimes a little confused (is the Cheshire Cat… Doctor Who?), but the overall idea is cohesive enough. The panto format also allows for a fair amount of loose, playful schtick. The cast is charismatic and fully engaged with the audience, particularly the children.
Rosie Callagahan is endearing as Fido, a canine who wants desperately to please, to be everyone’s “good dog.” As Twankey Hen, P. Rodney Barnes manages to be as vivid and colourful as his red and yellow hen suit, dropping eggs whenever he gets too excited. Linette Doherty, with her pink bouffant, is an eccentric Napoleon Pig. This rag-tag collection of misfits is completed with Taran Beaty’s hilariously deadpan Johnny Duck and Jackie English’s Cheshire Cat, a French-accented feline with stylish beret.
Like all panto companies with their crowd favourites, English’s Cheshire Cat seems familiar to the audience. Though I haven’t been there for the previous shows, I still sense the established affection.
The dance numbers, set to both classic and contemporary songs, feel a bit janky and restrained in the small space, but that greatly contributes to their charm. Most importantly, this ensemble’s dynamic creates a strong, communal sense of dress-up and horseplay that defines good panto.
The costumes have a rough-around-the-edges appeal, lots of colourful wigs and furry jumpsuits. There is even a gag about the nearby Value Village being the source of some prominent props.
The hand-painted, cartoony aesthetic is warm and inviting. The red streaks and white trim suggest a barn which flanked by a corn field on one side. Opposite the field, there is an expanse of green rolling hill with a telltale symbol hanging in the air—the very silly reference to the trademark Windows desktop background is a cute touch.
I think they may have oversold tickets as there was some scrambling to find places for everybody, but if you don’t mind the jostling, it seems to work out for everyone involved. Some kids may even prefer the option of sitting directly on stage. At intermission, there are also some home-made snacks available for purchase.
Overall, this feels like a cozy community affair with a palpable history. The cast were quick to appear afterward, excited to connect to families in the audience.