Posts Tagged ‘Greenwich Theater’

Review – Sleeping Beauty – Greenwich Theater

December 7, 2019

Andrew Pollard’s annual Panto offering at the Greenwich Theater has become one of my seasonal favorites … it has a genuine home-grown feel, with fresh talent, gaudy and cheery sets, and an emphasis on storytelling, music, and fun that make it heads above the very commercial outings that make it on the ATG circuit. Putting a TV star on stage, or the winner of a “talent” contest, might be a good way to sell tickets, but it does not guarantee a good show. But taking a talented team and bringing them back together year after year – and fleshing the group out fresh drama school graduates getting lucky breaks – ensures the show itself is the star, and lucky audience members get to see the results – a panto with lots of laughs at a price you can afford.

This year the panto is Sleeping Beauty and it’s a celebration of the Greenwich theater’s 50th anniversary. Now, it seems unlikely that this theater is actually only 50 years old, but it did actually wake from a “long sleep” in the 60s, when it was refurbished after spending many years as a bombed out wreck. So the story of a young actor discovering a treasure in the storage area of the old theater isn’t too far off – only in the version we see on stage, what Ewan (Regan Burke) finds is a magic egg – the Fairy Faberge (Funlola Olufunwa) that transports him back from the swinging 60s to Russia in the age of the Czar.

Now the Russia scenes were where I was really grooving on this show. The backdrops of painted buildings with spiraling eggs on top were so pretty, and I loved the interiors that had designs taken off of Russian eggs. It’s also not the fantasy world I usually think of for Sleeping Beauty, though it was very much a fantasy because the Tsar was “Ivan the Slightly Irritable” (Martin Johnston) and his enemy was Rasputin (Anthony Spargo), who got a loud accompaniment of “Rah Rah Rasputin” every time he came on stage, much to MY delight (I’m a fan of music of that era). I think Baba Yaga would have made more sense, but she doesn’t have a catchy tune. The Princess (Anastasia – of course! – Esme Bacalla-Hayes) was pretty and lovable and had SUCH a voice, can I say her version of “Seasons of Love” was my musical highlight of the evening?

Of course we all know that neither the male nor female lead can be the star of the show – it has to be the dame! And Andrew Pollard as Tsarina Bertha delivers in spades, with an endless series of corny costumes, many bad jokes (I honestly had no idea a black pudding was shaped like a sausage), and enough ad lib to keep the rest of the cast very much on their toes. The designated audience target was not playing along very well the night I went, however, and everything seemed fairly controlled – things will probably become even sillier as the run progresses (this review was on press night, a week after it started).

Things became VERY silly when the Anastasia and the court reconvened in the 60s – in fact, they went to the moon! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dame in a space suit, and I’ve certainly never pelted the stage with moon rocks before! Somehow the kids managed to NOT actually hurt anyone, and we of course had a happy ending – much like the Greenwich Theater has.

That said – I almost feel like this panto was playing it a bit safe – almost no political jokes, although a reasonable dose of off color ones. I wonder: has the political situation become so dire that even a smaller theater is afraid to tweak the nose of the rich? Or perhaps Pollard was thinking his jokes could go stale overnight with an election smack in the middle of the run! Hard to say but I think the rich and politicians could have used QUITE a bit more being made fun of. Hopefully next year we’ll get a bit of zip and zing back in it – Panto is one of the few places where the disempowered fight back, and I want to see more of this!

(This review is for a show that took place on Friday, November 29, 20119. It runs until January 12th.)


Review – Red Riding Hood – Greenwich Theater

December 27, 2015

I thought I’d hit all of the panto staples, but it turns out Red Riding Hood was completely new to me, so, whether it was for its tradition of excellence or because i wanted to try a brand new panto flavor, Greenwich Theater was a must visit show for me this year. Always done on a shoe string, their pantos have the benefit of an extraordinary dame and writer in Andrew Pollard. His knowledge of panto history and good panto structure has been endlessly on display over the several years I’ve been going to see his productions, and, in a sea of identikit productions with talentless pseudo-celebrities and an emphasis on glitz over wits, Greenwich has floated right to the top, horrible puns, silly costumes and all.

So, what is the plot of Red Riding Hood? Right in keeping with December’s headlines about Tory end of session giveaways, Red Riding Hood features an evil villain, Count Frackula, who’s headed to Red’s forest home with the plan of destroying it to get at the gas underneath. Red’s grandmother (played by Pollard) runs a theater in the forest, near a ski resort where … um … the three little pigs work and … um … a charming prince has come in disguise to find a bride. Really, the story is a bit of a mish mash, but we have comedy, romance, and villainry, so despite my confusion as to how the actual story was supposed to work (we’ve got two hours to fill after all and the traditional story just doesn’t have that much to it).

Pollard once again delivered, with fantastic dame outfits, songs that captured pop moments of the past and present, and piles of improv, which fairly destroyed the handsome prince’s ability to finish scenes but turned the evil count into an even more hysterical character than he would have been without the silver spangled codpiece (and a physique that filled out his black spandex body suit quite nicely, phwoar!). And while the three pigs might have been a fairly disposable add-on, Alim Jayda’s acrobatic performance as the boy pig took a side role and gave it real pizazz. Add on squirt guns, bondage, lycanthropy, and what do you have? A darn good time out. If every panto were this enjoyable, they wouldn’t be so quickly dismissed as seasonal children’s theater but recognized as the staple of British theater that they are. No wonder they sell out so regularly!

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 18th, 2015. It continues through January 10th.)

Review – Tommy – Greenwich Theater

August 17, 2015

As my companion and I walked into the Greenwich Theater on Friday, I had a sudden pang of terror that only comes with the realization that you’ve missed your show’s start time. The lobby was empty, the box office staff looked bored: but I was sure it started at 7:30! How had I done this? I nervously asked for our tickets and was told that the audience was all in the bar. Really? I’d never seen this kind of aching emptiness at any of my previous visits to this theater. What was going on?

The answer came to me as we walked into the house, which was two thirds empty. I had almost never seen a theater so utterly vacant. However, our lovely seats in the middle of row H were purchased, and neither of us had seen Tommy before (although my companion was a huge fan of the music), so we sat ourselves down …

And discovered that this was not, in fact, the undiscovered hit of the summer. No, this was the low budget, low concept revival of a show of which I can’t help but question the theatrical merits. Let’s think about it: a play about a deaf and blind kid … who plays pinball. Big excitement? Someone standing nearly stock still with their hands, at hip height, sort of slapping the air. This is not entertaining to watch. It was, however, extremely wrenching to see the scenes where he was being tortured by his relatives because of his disabilities … “see me, feel me, touch me, heal me” is now rewritten as an extraordinarily sad song for me … but bullying isn’t musical fodder, either. In fact, the entire story of Tommy is just a bit of a disaster and I can’t imagine why anyone would want to put it on stage except as a curiousity. Perhaps what it needed was the ironic “Xanadu the Musical” treatment to really make it come alive.

And it’s worth revisiting this show for the same reason Xanadu needed to live again: the music is just astounding. But, unlike Sunny Afternoon, this production of Tommy did not take the opportunity to blow us out of our chairs with some of the best rock music ever written; no, even Pinball Wizard came off sounding flaccid. I don’t know how they did it, but I suspect they needed one more guitarist and, I don’t know, someone to turn the volume to 11.

The cast worked really hard and I can’t blame them for any of this – they didn’t choreograph it, put themselves in white, and make a religious icon out of a triangle. No, they looked out at a 2/3 empty auditorium and gave us their best, and rightly deserved the enthusiastic applause of the grey haired grans sitting in front of us. I just wish it could have been so much more and not just an underpowered revival of one of the most iconic musicals of the rock age. That much disappointment hurt.

(This review is for a performance that took place on August 14, 2015. It continues for about another week if you’re still interested, maybe until the 22nd or so. )

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk – Greenwich Theater

December 20, 2014

As the lights darkened inside the Greenwich Theater, my companion turned to me and whispered, “Is this one of those pantos starring some sort of washed up soap star?” “No,” I said, “That’s not really what they do here.” “Oh,” she said, “do you mean they actually hire people who can act?” “Yes,” I said, “and they can sing and dance, too.”

And yes, for it was the annual Andrew Pollard panto extravaganza, a.k.a. the Greenwich Panto, this year manifesting itself as Jack and the Beanstalk. Looking at the fairly simple set (front drop with snowy village; town consisting of two angles with a well), you couldn’t help but notice the difference between this and the glitter-ganza of the Richmond panto. Twenty courtiers, including acrobats? Here we had about six townspeople in total, all of whom looked like they may not have quite graduated from acting school yet. And with all of the extra curliques taken off, we’re forced to focus on what is in front of us; a simple, jolly setting for having a good time. We are told jokes old (the one about Jack’s father being squashed is at least 50 years long in the tooth) and new (the dame says when she knocked on the castle door, she said she was from UKIP “and they let me right in”), rehash physical comedy routines that are still just extremely giggle inducing (the rocking, farting couch just slayed me), and get to have a singalonga. The height of excitement (for me) for the evening was the end of act one, when the whole cast (including Daisy the cow puppet, hysterical and so adorable) came on stage to do an updated “Bohemian Rhapsody” with lyrics that cunningly mirrored the original while making it clear Jack was just going to have to climb that beanstalk. It was really worth the price of admission and a moment of pure panto madness, the kind I wait for all year.

Some time during the middle I asked, “So is this a good panto or a bad panto?” and my friend said, “There is no good or bad in panto: they are all inherently panto.” Well, some pantos are more panto than other, and if you want one that’s going to have you laughing, singing, and wiping the tears away, I highly advise a visit to Greenwich this Christmas season. And don’t feel too bad for Alim Jayda: I think he loves being a baddie.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 18th, 2014. It continues until about January 11th.)

“Not Dead Yet!” – a Report on the London Comedy Forum’s roundtable on the Art of Pantomime – Greenwich Theater

December 23, 2013

I was shocked to see a newspaper article declaring that panto was dead. What? How could this be? Considering that I was struggling to find time in my schedule to fit in all of the pantos on offer in London – and occasionally struggling to even get tickets – I wasn’t sure just what sort of death they were describing. I mean, come on, panto is so popular that it’s even got a fully-rampant adult genre, with three shows (at least!) in London this December, and even two spoof pantos (“Peter Pan Goes Wrong” and the “Jack and the Beanstalk” at Southwark Playhouse).

Looking closer, the article claims that it’s the lack of trouser roles, the “end of the dame,” and the movement away from “traditional” stories that mark the death knell of the “traditional” panto. (Being that this article was in the Telegraph, this was, unsurprisingly, blamed on political correctness gone mad.) Now, I’m obviously no expert on what “traditional” panto looks like – I only saw my first one in 2005 – but I hadn’t noticed a fall-off in dame action, and (unlike CAMRA’s hysteria about pubs closing) I haven’t noticed a single theater call off producing their annual panto in the last eight years. What was this article really going on about? Was there a shred of truth to their claims? In the spirit of inquiry, I decided to attend a talk hosted by the London Comedy Forum on the future of panto after a Friday night performance of Greenwich Theater’s Puss in Boots.

Speakers at the talk were Chris Abbott, author of Putting on Panto to Pay for the Pinter – a history of panto’s “golden years” (or just the 1950s and 60s, depending on how you see it), speaking for pantos past; Simon Sladen, webmaster of “The National Database of Pantomime Performance,” speaking for panto present; and Andrew Pollard, author and dame of Greenwich’s panto for the last 5 years (I think!), on behalf of Panto Future. Well, actually, he was speaking about the present as well, about the reality of creating pantos, dirty things like budgets and marketing (apparently cost of cast heavily influences how he structures his plays). And between the three of them they were a panto knowledge powerhouse. So what was their take on this subject? (I’m afraid I’ve had to muddle the answers into one voice, as I didn’t bring a tape recorder. But there was one there, and if you want, you can probably get a transcript.)

First attacked was the question of whether traditional panto is dying because of a dearth of Puss in Boots (and Dick Whittingtons). The speakers noted that there has always been an evolution in Panto stories, and that, in fact, one now “traditional” panto was originally written (around 1900) as a role for a famous male comedian. Both Snow White and Peter Pan became done as pantos after the Disney movies came out, and, they said, there is no way to escape the effect of Disney on the Panto consciousness; while Disney had no Widow Twankey in Aladdin (and truth be told neither is there one in the original story, in The 1001 Nights), the addition of a princess and a flying carpet to the Panto tale has come in response to audience expectations in the post-Disney era. Oddly, Andrew credited Disney for making his Puss in Boots possible, thanks to the raised profile the character has received courtesy of Shrek. Who knew? But the emphasis was on panto evolution; there isn’t a fixed repertoire, it is continually changing as new stories rise in the public consciousness. Lots of things have changed in the past fifty years, such as the end of scenes with water fountains and the ones that have acrobats diving through curtains (I’ll have to refer back to Abbot’s book for the proper titles of these things – I’d never heard of them before).

Next up: the supposed end of breeches/trouser/”principal boy” roles. Historically, many plays had women in men’s roles; but these days, people get their flash of leg in other ways, i.e. with Pamela Anderson as the Genie in Wimbledon’s Aladdin a few years ago. Dancers are also dressed in somewhat scantier clothing than before; and overall the accessibility of sexy fun in the theater is just much, much more than it was even fifty years ago. The numbers show that, while smaller theaters may be doing breeches roles less, that the number of people who see them per year has not been decreasing (as the tradition is continuing in the larger productions). Is it a matter of kids being uncomfortable with cross dressing, or parents wanting to shelter them from it? The consensus was no: kids saw C-Beebies, parents saw Little Britain; it’s still very much a part of British popular culture. This argument simply didn’t hold up to the numbers. Andrew said that casting in “expected” genders made for the ability to do stronger love scenes, but it’s not not being done because people won’t accept it.

Finally, what about the panto dame role? There was a general acknowledgement that this was a problem, that there were less dames in panto, but this was seen as due more to a lack of talent than a lack of desire. Pantos were being driven by celebrity casting, and the people who were taking on these roles were not familiar with the kind of skills that made a successful dame. (But later, anecdotally, I was told that some people who have done dame roles simply aren’t asked to come back. There may be more to investigate here.) Oddly, in America, where the panto is being introduced bit by bit, some uptake has been had in daming by casting a former Mrs Turnblad (the male-played mother role from Hairspray) in one of these roles. The group bemoaned the lack of training opportunities for people who want to do panto – apparently it’s generally ignored by acting schools, with only 5 or less UK theater programs offering panto as part of their curricula. In fact, when they did Aladdin at the Young Vic (the first panto I ever saw), they had to bring in “experts” to help make the panto funny – apparently skills such as timing and jokes and “magic” (and keeping children’s attention) do not come ready-bred out of RADA.

Looking at the discussion, what I heard overall was that panto was a lively, continuously evolving tradition, that takes on new forms and new technology as society continues to change. But what is decreasing is the quantity of locally produced and staffed shows. Only four major theaters in the UK write their own pantos – Hackney, Greenwich, Salisbury, and York. What is happening is that panto is becoming a corporate product, built by companies who aim to put butts in seats and turn a profit doing this. So while panto is alive and well, I think there is an argument to be made that there is a movement away from “traditional” pantos – written in a local theater with locally pointed jokes and a cast that evolves with each other and the audience year after year – to more of a cut and dry business. And I think it’s these shows that could both be drying up dame talent – because a skilled cross dressing comedian is rarely a famous actor as well – and choosing more “Disneyfied” story options. But we all agreed, when asked, “Is panto dead?”


Review – Puss in Boots – Greenwich Theater

December 16, 2013

Hot on the heels of the “Panto is Dead” non-story that cited a dearth of Puss in Boots performances as one of the bellwethers of the erosion of the art form, I was on my way to see my second Puss in seven days. I was enthused because last year’s performance at the Greenwich Theater was a real “scales falling away” kind of moment where I realized another hotbed of panto brilliance was just under my nose, yet had evaded my notice for seven years. Mr Andrew Pollard, you have been hiding your candle under a bushel basket!

I guess it would be hard to really say he’s been hiding it under a bushel basket, because he’s been writing and dame-ing at the Greenwich Theater for five or so years (six I think for just writing), but in all of that time they’ve not received a review in a single one of the majors, so little reviewers like me didn’t have the heads up we need to head to pastures new. (Hey, it’s part of what I do for YOU … provide you tips about shows you wouldn’t necessarily hear about if you just read print media.) So yay for Puss in Boots and yay for a locally produced and written panto!

To my GREAT excitement, I discovered that none other than Cutesy McHotpants from Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens – I mean, Kate Malyon – was there as our princess. Normally this kind of love interest is a throwaway role in my eyes, but with her tremendous charisma, good singing voice, and sassy charm, she was entrancing to watch as she navigated the role of girlfriend, pawn, hostage, schemer, etc. etc. She seemed to be a bit of an anchor for poor American Luke Striffler (as Sam), who was being given a hell of a ribbing by the rest of the cast, by which I mean Andrew, er, I mean, Fifi the fruit seller, who kept saying that Luke thought he was there to do some Shakespeare. Poor Like had to stare at the set and desperately try to not giggle while Kate quite successfully pretended nothing unusual was going on.

And this spirit of joy, of improvisation and bubbling happiness, just oozed infectiously through this whole production. It was embodied in Puss (acrobatic and sexy Alim Jayda), who bounced and purred and fought and was generally amazing, but the entire cast had the energy. You caught it in the songs, the audience bounced it back (like the balls they tossed around), the supporting chorines (so young!) stamped it back off the floor, the whole theater was echoing with laughter and “it’s behind you” and the whole vibe of a very very large room full of people having a good time. You plop “Live and Let Die” and a psychedelic spinning cat universe on top of all of this excitement, and it just works. This is what panto is: not big name actors and floppy jokes and an anticipatable list of slightly hacked pop songs from this year’s top ten, but brilliant improv, sparkling topical/timeless jokes (“It’s my Charlton bra – no cups and very little support”), and a total connection between the actors and the audience that goes beyond just teaching us our callback and leading a singalonga.

Oh my God, I’m raving. It’s not like I had a good time. But OH YES I DID! And oh yes you will if you can get a ticket. God d**m this was so much fun! It singlehandedly justified the other four pantos I saw before that should have left me sated but instead I went looking for more. ANDREW POLLARD YOU ARE A PANTO PUSHER and I can’t wait to see what your Beanstalk looks like next year!

(This review is for the evening performance that took place Friday, December 13th, 2013. It continues through January 5th. Many shows are sold out but there is still some availability.)

Mini-review – Robin Hood – Greenwich Theater

December 8, 2012

It seems churlish to complain that I’ve just been seeing too many shows lately, but, well, I’m backlogged three reviews from the nine plays I’ve seen in the last seven days and I don’t know how I’m going to catch up. So I’m writing about what I enjoyed most first, and in this case, I want to tell the world that Robin Hood at the Greenwich Theater is a damned fun show and absolutely worth heading out into parts somewhat less known in order to see it (it’s only ten minutes walk from the rail station and really not that hard to find).

The story really isn’t much – Robin Hood is tweaking the nose of the Sheriff of Nottingham (which was very much reminding me of George Osborne, only slim and sexy with some really killer boots) by stealing money from him that the Sheriff is stealing from the poor (of course in real life the “sheriff” forgets to steal from the rich, i.e. Starbucks and Vodafone – really, the parallels with modern politics were so obvious!). Meanwhile, the Sheriff has got his hands on Maid Marion, Robin Hood’s childhood sweetheart, and has decided he’s going to marry her to get his hands on her wealth. So far so good – but the supporting characters are SUCH a hoot, starting with the “Camp Minstrel” (in a blue kilt and tam o’ shanter), Friar Tuck (the cook – lots of “fryer” jokes going on), and the Sheriff’s evil henchwoman (Caroline Koutsoudes), who for some reason was a Spanish witch (go figure). My favorite amongst ALL the characters was not, however, the Naughty Nursey dame (Andrew Pollard, who as he wrote this thing as well as starring in it is a genius in my book), but Arabella Roderigo as Marion, who whips off her damsel rags and tosses distress out the window to reveal herself as a warrior princes! She shoots a bow, she defeats evil, she belts out a ballad and makes it all look fun. What a talent! After complaining about how damned saccharine all of the female leads seemed to be, finally one that makes me want to cheer. Hooray for Caroline!

Er, I mean, “Robin Hood,” at least per the audience call back. As for the REST of the show, it was a good time from start to finish, with lots of bad puns, slightly risque jokes (pulling on my dingaling, MY) that I think were entirely understood by the audience of eight year olds, a slapstick number involving Tuck and Nursie “curing” the bum-hanging-out Sheriff, a running joke about the Minstrel’s unsung song, and piles and piles of songs that ranged from disco to modern. Bonus: when THIS show did “Gangnam Style,” the ENTIRE AUDIENCE leapt to their feet and danced along! My God! Such enthusiasm! That said, it was SO well placed and so well deserved, because this was a fun, fun show that had me clapping and giggling and booing and shouting at the stage all the way through. Greenwich Theater’s Robin Hood is an utter success, and I know I’ll be back to see it again next year.

(This review is for the matinee performance that took place on Thursday, December 6th, 2012. It continues through Sunday, January 6th. Nice job, Mr Pollard, you are my panto hero this year!)