Now a language-school teacher in Tokyo, Gareth Hinchley worked for Britain’s chief forestry agency before coming to Japan in 2005. Originally from Manchester, he’d done a bit of writing as a child but hadn’t pursued it seriously before he wrote “Dick Whittington,” the upcoming production by Tokyo Theatre for Children.
“Taking the first step to write this show was hard,” he said in a recent chat, “and if it wasn’t for my grandmother’s encouragement when she was alive, I would have never had the idea to try to be a writer.”
“Dick Whittington,” which Hinchley also directs and costars in, is a children’s musical loosely based on a 17th-century English folk tale about a country boy who leaves home with his cat to find his fortune and ends up as Lord Mayor of London. In Hinchley’s version, Dick travels to Tokyo to try to become a singer.
The play is written and performed in panto style, a popular choice for TTFC, which was founded by a group of international-school students’ mothers in 1974. The British theater tradition has been a Christmas staple there since Victorian times, with works such as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Pinocchio,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and “Cinderella” among the regular stagings.
Enhancing its child-appeal, panto (as it’s known) usually features women in male roles (and vice versa), plenty of audience participation (especially booing the villains and cheering the heroes), animal characters, bawdy puns and absurdity both silly and surreal.
As to how he managed to give his play some local flavor, Hinchley explained, “I find small izakaya (Japanese pubs) or yakitori (chicken BBQ restaurants) run by aging ‘mama-sans’ to be the warmest and friendliest places in Tokyo. Of course the alcohol aspect wasn’t suitable for children, so I focused on the yakitori part.”
Consequently, his show features a yakitori restaurant with a mama-san played by TTFC veteran Teru Nakajima, her beautiful daughter, Muriel (named after Hinchley’s grandmother and played by Yukimi Noguchi) along with Dick’s comrades Monty the Cat (Carla Ito) and Colin the Cow (played by Hinchley and named after his brother) — and of course Dick himself (Brie Dombrowski).
For Hinchley, the title character’s story mirrors that of a lot of the Tokyo expats who make up a typical TTFC cast and crew. “Maybe our home countries didn’t quite provide everything we needed in terms of following dreams or having adventures, so we traveled to Japan in search of something,” he suggested.
For those in search of some panto fun for children (and themselves), there’s only one way to find out whether Hinchley’s play is what you were looking for …
“Dick Whittington” runs Nov. 28-30 at Theater Bonbon in Nakano. For details, visit tokyotheatreforchildren.com.