They’re Behind You! Pantomime Season, 2016-17
They’re Behind You!
Pantomime Season, 2016-17, an Overview
by Thomas Forsythe
Oh, yes they are! They’re behind us … at least for this season. But like the gestation of all healthy babies, in nine months time pantos will be back. It is hard to think of a more enduring audience-participation theatre genre than the perennially popular pantomime.
In and around Richmond and Twickenham where our own reviewers slink in the stalls of playhouses there has been the usual seasonal plethora of pantos, so perhaps it is a good time, as the season has just finished, to take a quick overview of a half dozen local offerings seen by our hardy and intrepid critics.
Half of the half dozen have been Cinderella. We are Cinderella-ed out! There are now more squashed pumpkins than after a Halloween orgy, the bottle banks are crammed with broken glass slippers, and we are rodent free, since all the rats and mice (together with a few pet lizards) have transmogrified into liveried servants of differing statuses.
First at the ball of our Cinderellas was more-or-less a dead heat between Teddington Theatre Club (at Hampton Hill Theatre) and Barnes Community Players (at Kitson Hall) vying for invitations to the ball during the first week in December. Whereas Star Panto Group just got in before midnight with a production last weekend (17th and 18th February) on behalf of the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Family Association (also at Hampton Hill Theatre).
All of our eponymous Cinderellas were demure, pretty and oh so kind, just as they should be, but of course, as always, the scene stealers are the ugly sisters. One seasoned local theatre-goer, sated after two Cindrellas in one week, was heard to say, “I’ve just see two great ugly sisters”, before adding “Pity they were in different shows!”. Such is the nature of the panto game. Our reviewers concurred, however, giving the top uglies to Andrew Lawston, as Grizelda in the BCP offering, who motored the show like a V8 in a mini (car that is, not skirt), and Edz Barrett as Lanti in TTC’s show. Edz lost the edge though by over-camping it. There is a fine line when playing a panto dame, between being a female impersonator and that clear travesty that is the archetypical dame. We should know that our dame is a man in drag crudely and rudely parodying a woman. For it to work, he must miss the mark in a bosom-lifting non-feminine way. TTC did however hit the mark with the uglies’ costumes, colourful excesses of increasingly exotic exaggeration that made Carmen Miranda look positively dowdy.
Musically, though, there was much to enjoy in the Cinderella shows. At TTC there was Emma Hosier’s choreography, and the biggy ensemble number, Having a Good Time. BCP had a lovely trio, led by MD, Simon Douglas Lane, who gave us a proper overture, and a beautifully rendered Cycle of Life, sung with rich resonance by Fergus O’Kelly emerging briefly from the chorus.
Breeches parts are of course a staple of pantomime and whereas TTC disappointed with none, BCP gave us two in all their thigh-slapping glory, Elisha Jefferies, a gorgeously statuesque Prince Charming and Mel Lawston an equally attractive ambiguous Dandini. TTC excelled though on the wicked stepmother front with Samantha McGill’s assertive Madam Cod-Fillet.
Madam Cod-Fillet, the stepmother? What’s all this, you may well ask. TTC’s Cinderella is set in France under the Moulin Bleu, so conflating a kind of Cinderella with a kind of Cabaret. No problem, perhaps it is a tribute to Charles Perrault, who in the late 17th Century brought the story from Italy to France (and thence to England). As a by-the-by, it is perhaps worth noting that it is in these linguistic transformations that the idea of a glass slipper arose. The original is made of vair, i.e. squirrel fur. Even within the French language this could be confused with verre, i.e. glass.
Star Panto Group’s Cinderella was described as “our traditional Disney” production, certainly a contradiction in terms for a story whose roots are in a tradition that goes back at least 1200 years, as Shakespeare knew when he wrote King Lear. Disney is of course infamous for pillaging European culture and claiming it as Disney’s own. However, in fairness, all this shows is that the Cinderella story is very malleable.
The Star Panto Group is part of the Kathryn Turner Trust, a grant-giving charity that is based in Oxfordshire. It was instrumental in setting up the Shooting Star charity in Hampton, and currently gives over £5,000 per month to charities helping ex-servicemen and their families. It runs charity shops from a warehouse in Abingdon, but once a year it puts on the Star Panto. Kate Turner MBE, the charity’s redoubtable founder, now in her eighth decade, has admirably produced the Star panto for 49 years. She says that she “loves to hear the children laugh”. Maybe this is the essence of pantomime.
Edmundian Players went to another story of Italian origin for their panto at Whitton’s Cheray Hall, Pinocchio. Thankfully, they did not try to reproduce a Disney version. Quite the contrary, the story was presented full of original touches and succeeded in combining fairy tale, musical, adventure story and ballet, whist shoehorning them all into a pantomime format. With nearly three hours running time, it was quite a feat, but as our reviewer, Quentin Weiver said “its almost Wagnerian duration just whistled by, with my very young companion on the edge of her seat the whole time”.
So how did the Pinocchio dame stand up against the Cindrellas’ ugly sisters? Terry Bedell, as Risotto, the “wife” of toymaker Geppetto, savoured the dame role, playing the audience well, and giving great energy to the part. As a nice foil to the panto shenanigans in Pinocchio was Dave Young’s measured pathos as Geppetto, truly touching. The Edmundians’ breeches part was played with great aplomb by Amelia Kirk as Tony, the heroic principal boy, while Rachael Nicholas, as the love interest ingénue Marietta, captivated our reviewer with her charmingly coy portrayal. Both actresses are sixteen year-old.
A highlight of Edmundians Pinocchio was a wow-inducing black-light dance sequence with fluorescent fishes swallowed a huge whale, which “then transformed into the inside of the beast complete with Gepetto, Pinocchio and family incarcerated in the gastric grotto of the whale’s stomach, together with some pre-digested (but still quite lively) skeletons”. See what Quentin Weiver says here
Richmond Theatre’s Sleeping Beauty awoke early in the season, with six-week run beginning right at the beginning of December. Although it did induce a few yawns from some reviewers, who considered it too formulaic with a raiding of last year’s costume baskets, “a sense of déjà-vu”; other were more up-beat, especially about the dame, Matt Rixon as Nursie, “seasoning the plot with just enough knowing asides and double entendres for the mum and dads, without ever losing the kids.”
Now here is another fine line to be drawn in pantomime. Sexual innuendo is one of the many panto conventions, for if commedia dell’arte is the mother of pantomime, Victorian music hall is its father. However, the line should be drawn much closer to the saucy seaside postcards of the mid twentieth century than to smutty stand-up of the twenty-first: more Donald McGill than Russell Brand. Loz Keal’s writing of pantos for the Teddington Theatre Club over the years has drawn criticism in this respect. This season’s Cinderella was more toned-down, but one lady member of TTC was heard to remark that there were so many references to the Prince’s balls, that in the end it just became boring.
At the risk of ourselves boring our readers with fine lines, there is the danger to panot producers of the political references. Although satire has traditionally be one of the many ingredients of the pantomime cake, the producer does face a real danger of alienating at least half of his audience, as some scoff the political cake with relish whilst others choke on it. And please, please, panto writers, could we not have escaped the tedium of the Brexit and Trump issues, even at the panto. We came here to have some fun, not be lectured!
These issues came into at least four of our half-dozen pantos. In the Richmond Theatre Sleeping Beauty, we had the brittle-edged Maureen Lipman as the wicked witch Carabosse transforming from overdressed Goth to parody Teresa May (albeit fairly accurately) with the half-baked quip “breadsticks means breadsticks”.
Cairn McConville, director of the Rose Theatre’s offering, even politicised The Wind in the Willows, stating that he begged to differ if you thought that a children’s story about a mole going on an adventure had no place in the world of 2016 and its tumultuous events. Mr Toad even became a thinly disguised Donald Trump! Nevertheless one reviewer loved Jamie Baughan’s Toad, “melding preposterous vanity, entitlement and foolishness with infuriatingly winning charm”. Well!
Certainly, many were charmed by the “heart-warming chemistry” between Gary Mitchinson’s wholesome and angelic Moley and Emma Pallant’s sweetly disposed Ratty whose innocent pragmatism enables him to “choose to hear there’s nothing wrong with this wonderful world.”
Whist not exactly a pantomime, The Wind in the Willows had enough of its conventions to be included in this overview, and deserves so for that quote from Moley, which is perhaps the essence of the panto.
Continuing the positive note, our reviewers appreciated Maureen Lipman’s running gag in Sleeping Beauty of the singer whose notes are more off-key than positive, alluding to her portray of Florence Foster Jenkins in Glorious! (which had a stage outing in Kew last autumn See what Mary Stoakes says here .)
In our reviews of local pantos, one thing shone through: the esprit de corps that pulls a panto together. In particular there have been a number of examples of last minute cast changes where it has been young people who have really stepped into the breach. In Star Panto’s Cinderella personal circumstances lost six performers with only a few rehearsals still to go. But for Kate Turner this was just a “hiccup” and she coached her doughty replacements into giving a Star performance. Even more remarkable in Edmundian’s Pinocchio was 13 year-old Mary McGrath, who stepped up from the chorus into the eponymous role for the opening performances at a few hours notice. Our reviewer was full of admiration: “This was a feat that would have had the most seasoned professional quaking at the thought”.
Perhaps ostensibly so, pantomimes are largely for, about, (and often by) children. Although nowadays performers are forbidden by the ogre of “elf and safety” from throwing sweets to them, it is really warming to see how our local companies encourage the youngest in their audiences. Teddington Theatre Club brings out all the panto cast into the foyer after the show for photos (plus much banter from the grown-ups). Edmundian Players take children, with their parents, back stage to meet their heroes and shudder at the proximity of the baddies. Star Panto Group even allowed children into Cinderella’s coach for eager parents’ photo-shoots. Perhaps the commercial theatre should be less sniffy and mingle more with its fans.
In its centuries’ old travelling show, pantomime has journeyed along, picking up influences and conventions from all and sundry. Its main route from commedia dell’arte to the Victorian and Edwardian music hall took it through the mid-eighteenth century harlequinade. This was an art that brought this entertainment to its now uniquely English form of the pantomime. And the harlequinade we own to David Garrick, that theatre polymath whom we can locally justifiably call our own, as he lived most of his life in Hampton. Garrick was born three hundred years ago last weekend on 17th February 1717. So it is fitting that we should celebrate a fresh season of harlequinade here in the area where he lived for over a quarter of a century.
David Garrick, if he still lived in Hampton, could be forgiven for thinking of pantomime that “It behind you!”, but the last laugh is with us and we can, in unison, give a hearty reply … all together now … “Oh no, it’s NOT!”
This review of reviews covered the following of this season’s productions:
First Family Entertainment Sleeping Beauty at Richmond Theatre, 2nd December to 8th January;
Teddington Theatre Club Cinderella at Hampton Hill Theatre, 3rd to 10th December;
Barnes Community Players Cinderella at Kitson Hall, Barnes, 6th to 10th December;
RTK The Wind in the Willows at Rose Theatre, Kingston 6th December to 3rd January;
Edmundian Players Pinocchio at Cheray Hall, 20th to 28th January;
Star Panto Group Cinderella at Hampton Hill Theatre, 17th and 18th February.