Langley King keeps panto real

A Langley actor wanted his mother’s legacy to continue.

That’s why James King stepped up to take on the directorial role in the Royal Canadian Theatre Company’s upcoming production of Sleeping Beauty.

The curtain goes up this weekend on the theatre company’s traditional British pantomime, this time with 38-year-old James at the helm.

“Ellie (his mother) has been directing pantos for a very long time, and she wanted to retire because it’s a staggering amount of work. But, so important was it to me that the panto continue, that I didn’t see any other choice but to carry on in her stead,” James told the Langley Advance.

“There was never any questions that I would take on the role when Ellie stepped down, because it means the world to me,” added James, who played the Demon King consistently for the past 15 of his 20 years in his mother’s pantomime and served as assistant director for several years.

“Ellie’s pantos have been delighting both the audiences and those of us who are involved for decades, and I couldn’t imagine all of that coming to an end. So, to be honest, it didn’t enter my mind that I wouldn’t take up the torch, as it were,” he said.

Sleeping Beauty panto

Following on the heels of last year’s success with Cinderella, Ellie – the matriarchal thespian – offered a retelling of the age-old fairy tale Sleeping Beauty.

The curtain is set to go up on the production Friday at Surrey Arts Centre, but it’s been a long-time in the works, James explained.

The 37-member cast has been working since the beginning of September, with rehearsals just about every weekend and a lot of other work going on behind the scenes to make it possible.

James described pantomimes as a “huge undertaking,” with an enormous cast compared to most shows – which means loads of costumes, lots of sets, special effects, props, music, and plenty of people working behind the scenes.

Of course, while Ellie King has stepped back from the duties of director, she’s still one of those involved behind the scenes for this production.

She’s the playwright, as well as a painter and the assistant director. But the King family involvement doesn’t end there.

James’ father is the musical director, scenic carpenter, and master of special effects. And James’ 13-year-old stepdaughter Emily – who was first drawn into the fold five years ago – is also in the cast for Sleeping Beauty.

“Panto is all about family, and you only have to look at our company to see that,” James said, noting there are several other families involved, too – both on and off stage.

“We’re all about getting young people involved in theatre, which is why we have our mentor programs and that tends to bring families in together.”

Family tradition aside, James was asked why he is so passionate about pantomime, versus other types of theatre productions.

“It’s difficult to point to a single quality that makes panto my absolute favourite,” he said.

“In the form of panto itself, there’s the history – of course – dating back as far as the commedia dell’arte of the 16th century and the traditions and conventions that have been established in the centuries since, but there are also the eccentricities peculiar to panto that you won’t find in any other theatrical forms, like the pantomime dame and the principal boy.

“Pantos are funny, but they’re also uplifting, magical, and moving, filled with adventure and excitement in the way unique to the fairy tails on which many panto stories are based. They’re alive and dynamic in a way that most theatre can’t be because the audience is actively part of the show, and can interact with the characters,” said the die-hard actor, who said the hardest part about this year’s production is that he’s not on stage.

“It’s the first time in 20 years that I’ve not had a role in the panto, so while I love what I’m doing, there’s something very special about being on the stage and part of the show, and I miss that very much.”

The Willoughby man started participating in his mother’s pantomimes a few decades ago, his first production being Puss In Boots.

“I’ve seen other pantos, of course, but I’ve never wanted to work with any other company because I find that Ellie (Mom) best holds on the traditions that I think are extremely important,” James said.

“Panto is about contemporary humour, of course, but it’s very much about tradition, and Ellie’s pantos adhere most closely to the traditions that make pantos so popular all over the world, while still bringing new approaches and content to the traditional format.”

It’s fair to say that pantos have become a tradition, not only in the King family, but among many of their friends.

“I can’t imagine working with another company, to be honest, any more than I can imagine having another family,” he said.

Two days before the launch of Ellie King’s Sleeping Beauty, James excitement was growing.

“I feel absolutely confident that we’re ready to open, and I can’t wait to see the audience enjoy the show as much as I do,” he said.

“Even having seen it as often as I have, the cast still make me laugh so hard it hurts, and they still have those sweet, stirring, and dramatic moments that have always made panto so marvelous.”

Sleeping Beauty

The show runs Dec. 20, 21, 26, 27, and 28 at 3 p.m., as well as 7 p.m. on Dec. 19, 20, and 27. Ticket prices vary, but are available at 604-501-5566.

The team will also be taking the panto to Maple Ridge three shows at The ACT, 3 p.m. on Jan. 3 and 7 p.m. on Jan. 2 and 3. For tickets to those shows, people can call 604-476-2787.

Asked why someone would want to come out for this show, James didn’t hesitate in his response:

“Simply put, panto is magic. It’s family entertainment that everyone loves, with something for everybody; there’s music, comedy, sword fighting, slapstick, heroes to cheer, and villains to boo, and so much more.”

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