Review – “It’s Behind You” – Union Theatre, Southwark

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I am a big panto fan, no doubt about it. I spend the year looking forward to my next trip to the Hackey Empire and the most fun I’ll have in a theater all year long. I’m also a big fan of the Union Theatre in Southwark ever since seeing their Annie Get Your Gun” last spring. So I was very excited at the thought of this intimate, gritty space being used for a panto, especially on that was billed as “not for the kiddies” (as The Lyric Hammersmith’s Cinderella should have been). So off I went, adult companion by my side, to a Saturday afternoon performance for which I had very high hopes.

Things got off to a good start as our deliciously creepy narrator (Phillip Lawrence) escorted us into the tiny theater (set up with back and side seats, the stage itself forming the other side of a rectangle in combination with the seats). The set was particular low budget – just two painted drops showing “Pantoville.” We had a song and dance number featuring our various bizarre cast members – Stinkerbelle (Victoria McKenzie), “Mayor” Hook (Anton Tweedale, whom the narrator encouraged us to boo), a wheelchair-bound Cinders (Alison Edmunds), the bearded and hairy “Ugley” sisters (Warren Rusher and Richard Aloi), and the shockingly gay looking Buttons (Darren Munn). (By “shocking” I mean in a 80’s Richard Simmons kind of way, with a sweatband, fluffy hair, and eyeliner completely encircling his eyes.) These seemed to be a much darker version of the normal Panto crew, and quite the contrast to the various members of Mother Goose. The Ugley sisters were sex shop proprietors, Prince Charming (Victoria Jeffrey) was a corset-clad dominatrix, and, well, our Narrator appeared to have snuck off from Cabaret. So far, so good.

Our leads then appeared – a sort of Brad and Janet, but in this case, a Gary (Ross Henry Steele) and Karen (Carina Reeves), a couple who were apparently about to get hitched in the registry office before the male half disappeared into the loo (and Pantoland), leaving his very pregnant bride behind. The various plots then began to manifest – Gary (who kept not being found by Karen) seemed to be unwilling to admit he was getting married, Karen was hiding the fortune she was to inherit if she married, and (dah dah DAH!) people were being mysteriously murdered in Pantoland. A runaround began as Gary and Karen tried to find (or not find) each other, and various people attempted to either solve the murders or pull Gary and/or Karen.

Unfortunately, the energy for most of the first act just wasn’t enough to sustain all of this to-ing and fro-ing. There were some songs and a bit of dancing and some comedy, but I wanted things to be way more up and in your face. I’m not sure if it was because this was a matinee and almost the very end of the run, but the sparkle just wasn’t there. So much of the fun for pantos for me is watching actors hamming it up and having a good time, especially when things go not quite right and they have to start improving. For It’s Behind You, the line delivery, special effects, and acting all seemed to be quite where they wanted to be … and it was lifeless. Sure, the vanilla characters are always a bit dull, though Carina was actually quite on depicting a rather poor girl trying to make the best of a bad situation, but the rest of the characters just weren’t able to pump it up enough to make up the difference.

Oddly, I actually got intrigued by the late-arriving plot twist: Gary was actually gay and only with Karen to keep his reputation up. This actually got into a more nuanced analysis of this kind of situation than I would have ever expected from some silly flip of a play – how do you deal with this? It’s really just all too common, both pretending to be what your not and dealing with a person who doesn’t really love you even though they really want to – but can’t. It reminded me of high school rather a bit too much. This was enough of an impetus to get me to come back for the second act, which did manage to get quite a bit goofier and had a truly amazing ball scene in which people were sprayed with perfumes (“Anger!” “Honesty!” “ORGY!”) that made them all act most amusingly. It was a bit like the “Time Warp” scene of Rocky Horror, only far more pleasant. And there was a nice twist at the end as it turned out the bad guy wasn’t the person we thought, and Karen gets to (mostly) solve the murder, as a new mother – and comes to accept the fact that she needs to move on and let Gary find his own way … with Buttons.

Ultimately I found this show rather disappointing though it wasn’t wholly bad – I think I might have just caught the cast on a bad day. Or, who knows, maybe it did need a lot more editing and more fun stuck in the first act. At any rate, my enthusiasm for Union Theatre does continue and I look forward to seeing their next in-house production, which I think is going to be Jeckyll and Hyde (but can’t verify as their website is down as I write this).

(This review is for a performance that took place on Saturday, January 17th, 2009. This production closed on January 17th after the 7:30 performance.)

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