With its racially mixed, working class vibe, Theater Royal Stratford is ideally placed to hit the same sweet spot at the Hackney Empire panto. Their audience is reflected in their jokes, their casting, their music and their plotlines, with the villains frequently figures who have caused trouble locally (properly developers, for example). It’s all done on a shoestring, with simple costumes and no celebrity casting – in the goal, I believe, of keeping it locally affordable. So Wimbledon and Richmond get Pamela Anderson and Priscilla Presley (or their ilk) and deluxed sequinned glamour; it’s reflected in the sky high ticket prices. I want wit and enthusiasm, anyway, and smaller pantos, with their emphasis on creating a good show, seem to deliver more of what I want.
That said: what happened with this year’s Stratford Panto? There was, as near as I can tell, no current political jokes; the songs, while all original, were actually not as good as if they’d been clever rehacks of popular hits; and the only jokes that seemed aimed at the adults in the crowd were a few tacky jokes about body parts. What we did get were fart jokes, sword play, and a comical bit with a squasher. It was a kids’ show top to bottom and I felt a bit trapped in it: the huge highlights were King Richard (Ashley Campbell)’s tap dancing number and the dame, “Nursey” (Derek Elroy)’s fantastic turn hassling a random audience member to help out with a gag (and also steal him away from his wife). This improv scene was giggle-tastic and to me seemed a sign of what might have happened more often if the cast had been a bit more playful. But instead … well, it was dry where it should have been gushy, and perhaps a bit too concerned with getting its politics correct instead of going for a satisfying evening. I mean, it’s fine that Marion (Nadia Albina) can out-shoot Robin Hood (Oliver Wellington) but no big, pretty wedding scene at the end? It was disappointing. I still hope it does alright for the theater but it was the first time I’d ever been to a panto and really, really felt like I was just at a kids’ show.
(This review is for the opening night performance, which took place on Wednesday, December 16th, 2015. It continues through January 23rd.)