After a week with three fringe pantos, I finally headed out to a mainstream one – the Stratford panto. I was particularly enthused about it because it features Ralph Bogard, an actor I’d been following on Twitter since his star turn in the Leicester Square Theater Saucy Jack. (The year before a fellow Space Vixen had wound up in the Greenwich Panto as the heroine – proving, in my mind, what a great cast it was.)
But I was curious about what to expect. Panto is a constantly evolving art form, so while old favorites like Dick Whitttington and Aladdin are still getting plenty of stage time, theatres are also breaking in new stories – in this case, Beauty and the Beast. Per Andrew Pollard, author of the Greenwich pantos, this is in part due to the Disney effect, where fairytales they have made films of will suddenly have a new popularity with the panto-age viewing public. It was Disney’s movie that led to the first stagings of Snow White, after all, so it’s almost a tradition of its own. But even knowing you have a primed audience doesn’t tell you what you need to do to turn the source material into a show that works. Birmingham Royal Ballet nicely adapted it, but as a ballet, with the lush sets, drama and (of course) dance that a ballet audience would expect. But how to turn it into a panto? This is an interesting arena for creativity: if you read the story of Aladdin in The 1001 Nights, you may notice there is no Wishy Washy’s laundry, and similarly no Buttons in the original Cinderella. So Theater Royal Stratford East is taking on a show with only the barest whispers of tradition about it. It needs a beauty, a beast, a rose, and…. a candy factory? A dame? An evil witch? What about the selfish sisters? My panto expectations were unset, but I (and the rest of the audience) was ready to come along for the ride.
For this Beauty, the plot is as follows: Belle (Helen Aluko), her father (Minal Patel) and his sister (our dame, called, bizarrely, Giselle – Michael Bertenshaw) have washed up on the shores of Stratenford, Hingerland (get it?) without a penny to their names. They are forced to take jobs in a candy factory. Its owner, the scheming, selfish Mr Choakum (Ralph Bogard), decides that Belle is just the woman he needs to set himself up socially. This drama goes on for so long that it seems that there will never be any sort of fairy tale happening at all: there’s certainly no sign of any of the story’s original elements other than a marionette dumb show that seems completely unrooted (the cast never again appears in the guise of a family of puppeteers in any case).
Belle’s father goes to seek his lost boat and winds up in a magical palace where a rose appears along with a cast of strange creatures all under an enchantment, and we seem to finally be getting into our fairy tale. The rose is plucked, a beast appears (Vlach Ahston), the daughter offers herself in exchange for her father’s freedom, and the story is rolling. But it veers off again with a villain (required by panto tradition if not the source material): the witch who enchanted the beast (the rather glamorous Antonia Kemi Coker), who, with her daughter (Allyson Ava-Brown), wants to ensure the story has a bad ending. Are they successful? “Oh no they’re not!” is the only possible answer as panto rules are now in play; but the victory over materialism that is the triumph of the original story is transferred from the non-existent sisters to the post-transformation prince in a manner I found not satisfying.
In general, this evening has a bit of a budget feel to it. The costumes are quite simple – the dame only gets three – though with a touch of imagination (a Dia de los Muertos/Frida Kahlo look for the good guys, and a Princess Mononoke feel to the Beast). While the pop-up storybook look for the castle is charming and appropriate, it lacked a depth and attention to detail that might have made it truly enchanting. Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Beauty and the Beast, which toured in London this year, was a visual feast, and more magic would have been nice for this production. The songs seemed perfunctory and lacking in emotion. And, overall, there were absolutely none of the political jokes which previous Stratford pantos have delivered so well. Did a memo go out warning that Art Council funding would be cut if any complaints were made? Panto is a wonderful way to poke fun at the powers that be, but the opportunity was entirely missed.
Fortunately, the cast was very enthusiastic and took genuine pleasure in delivering a positive experience. I was especially delighted with Mr Choakum, a sleazy amalgamation of Caractacus Potts and Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka, manically driven and not quite right in the head (villains are always so fun). Aluko had a lovely voice and the group of storybook characters working for the Beast – Peter Pan, Pinocchio, Piggy, and Baby Bear – added a lot of flavor to the proceedings. And who can argue with a panto driven by an urban beat? While this show needed more magic, Beauty and the Beast seems a good show to take the family and radiates a genuine London sensibility. However, the script itself seemed really unsettled and lacked the firm structure that underlies so much panto humor. I don’t think the candy factory and pasted in Auntie really make for a winning script for this fairy tale, but its twists at the end did add interest.
This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on December 10, 2014. It continues until January 17th, 2015.)
Tags – Beauty and the Beast, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Helen Aluko, Minal Patel, Michael Bertenshaw, Ralph Bogard, Vlach Ahston, Antonia Kemi Coker, Allyson Ava-Brown