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Christmas tradition with a twist: ‘The Great Muslim Panto’ debuts in Britain

Eve Dugdale

Published: Updated:

One of my earliest childhood memories is attending a pantomime with my grandmother.

A real Christmas tradition for many families in the UK, the musical comedy stage production was always something we enjoyed together and while there may have been the odd reference to Santa, the story usually centered on a fairy tale rather than the time of year.

As far as I’m aware there’s no religious element to pantos either so it had never crossed my mind if the actor in the Snow White costume was Christian or Muslim.

That’s why I was surprised to hear that ‘The Great Muslim Panto’ had debuted in Bradford, Yorkshire this week.

With the same outrageous costumes, silly songs and slapstick comedy as the traditional panto, ‘If The Shoe Fits’ is a lighthearted story about a family’s search for a ‘halal’ panto that isn’t too rude and can be enjoyed by all the family.

But why do Muslims need their own pantomime I found myself asking. Aren’t fairy tales acceptable for all faiths?

Anisa Kissoon, who plays the mum in the show, told the UK’s Metro newspaper the panto was a “manifestation of Muslims being true to their faith but also aligned to British culture.”

‘The Great Muslim Panto’
‘The Great Muslim Panto’

Explaining how the show is aligned with the festivities of the season, the story revolves around an orphan’s journey inspired by the team’s time traveling across Africa listening to the stories of orphaned children. The main characters are all members of Anisa’s family.

After visiting some of the charity Penny Appeal’s orphan homes and running drama workshops with some of the children, this prompted them to raise funds to provide care for more children like them.

And the charity’s CEO Aamer Naeem said ‘The Great Muslim Panto’ is the “next iteration” of pantomimes adding that as well as raising money for a good cause, he hopes the show will do some good closer to home by changing perceptions about Muslims in Britain.

‘The Great Muslim Panto’
‘The Great Muslim Panto’

It’s something drama student Ansa Khan wishes as well.

She says: “I’ve heard that the show will feature references to Islamic teachings and figures which could be interesting to non-Muslims as it’s something different. Also, for people who might not have any Muslim friends, going to a show like this could really educate them about our community which is again a really nice thing.”

Integration?

Writer Michelle Curran says she doesn’t understand why it’s billed as ‘Muslim pantomime’ though. She says: “If it is meant to be integrating into British society, why isn’t it just a panto? Why have Islamic references? That isn’t very panto-like.

“Don’t misunderstand me though, I think the idea of it is great and I like what they are trying to do but I just don’t think the finished product will be what it’s aiming to do. It sounds like a different genre of theater to me. It would be interesting to see how the cross dressing and innuendo will be incorporated as well.”

For panto legend, TV star, radio DJ and comedian Steve Royle however, whether or not the show fits into the pantomime genre is irrelevant.

It’s Steve’s 15th year starring in pantomime this year. He plays Buttons in ‘Cinderella’ at Blackpool Grand Theater and says it’s great that ‘The Great Muslim Panto’ might introduce theater to a whole new audience.

“I think it’s great when anyone wants to join in the fun,” he says.

“Pantomime is all about getting kids into their first experience of theater. I’m not an expert on this but I think a lot of the Asian community don’t get to the theater as much, just because they’re doing other things, so I think it’s great that they have an outlet and can be introduced to theater and see a play that may be more aimed at their community. Once they’re at the theater they might discover there’s more things on there that they’re interested in.

“Someone has seen a niche market and maybe it’s highlighted that there is a bit of a misunderstanding across communities in the UK. Because pantomimes are held at Christmas time, maybe people assume it’s a part of a Christian festival and it may put them off.

“I’m all for it!”

The show has sold out all its six UK city dates so it sounds like quite a few people share Steve’s sentiments!