Posts Tagged ‘I Heart Panto’

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 – Robin Hood – Theater Royal Stratford East

December 20, 2015

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.)

Review – Mother Goose – Hackney Empire

December 23, 2014

After eleven months of heavy duty theater watching, I approached the Christmas season somewhat fearfully. I had agreed to review five shows in two weeks; on top of the shows I said I’d see with friends, I was looking at 14 shows in 12 days: six of them pantos. But you know what? It was like TWO WEEKS OF CHOCOLATE after a year of eating health food. December has been MY CHRISTMAS TREAT TO ME. Sure, no normal person would want to see three pantos a week (or more) for the entire month of December, but I LOVED IT!

And what panto did I want to see at the end of the second week? Hackney Empire! Because the whole point of the Christmas season panto-ganza is that I HEART PANTO and I wanted to see the BEST PANTO IN LONDON and after seeing five other pantos I was warmed up to it! I had had five appetizers and I was was ready for the main course (and had paid appropriately and invited friends)! And I was even more ready for it because Clive Rowe had been taking a star turn at the National last year and even though Suzie McKenna’s writing is good, having a dame like Clive really changes the dynamic of a panto. So Friday night and bring on Mother Goose!

Storywise, this Mother Goose is about the dangers of greed. At the beginning, Mother Goose is in danger of losing her house because she can’t pay the rent; but when she gets a goose that lays golden eggs (a goose that apparently has no idea what her new owner had been doing with her previous geese), her sudden wealth makes her avaricious. Of course, who doesn’t want to her Clive singing “Goldfinger” and walking around in glamorous gold ball gowns, but Ms Goose wants to be young and beautiful as well and is seduced by the evil fairy into taking a bath in a supposed “fountain of youth” … all in a plot to steal the goose.

Plot, however, is not the reason I go to panto. I go because I love to laugh. And with a master performer like Clive Rowe, this is pretty much guaranteed. He teases the audience mercilessly, ad lib on stage until the other performers forget their lines, and manages to make a hat constructed of goose eggs seem like a perfectly normal thing to wear. Of course, what we also get are scripted jokes (bad puns for the kids, innuendo and politics for the adults), fun dance numbers (Hackney always seems to slip in some tap dancing and I, for one, wholly approve) and the truly fantastic voices of all of the members of the cast. Good witch Sharon D Clarke could be doing concerts and instead we get the pleasure of listening to her serenade us while wearing wings. The whole things comes together so perfectly that, once again, I had tears rolling down my face because I was having such a good time. What ever have we done to deserve a panto as good as Hackney puts on every year? I think I’m just going to have to leaves some extra cookies out for Santa on Christmas eve, because he gave me everything I could have asked for with this one.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 12, 2014. It continues through January 4th.)

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.)

Review – Treasure Island: Curse of the Pearl Necklace – Above the Stag Theater

December 5, 2014

It’s odd to be going to shows not as the wide eyed novice, but as the return visitor who has pretty clear ideas about what to expect. I love being surprised; but there’s a lot to be said for choosing a known quantity with an anticipatable payout. In the case of the Above the Stag panto, this means lots of crude jokes, a queen for a dame, and a gay lead character. They’re shows meant for adults (it is in a pub after all) and they go down best with rather a lot of drinks. Sounds like a winning formula, don’t you think?

This year we have a new script (one I hadn’t heard of as a panto piece before), “Treasure Island,” which, with usual subtle humor has the add-on title “Curse of the Pearl Necklace.” Now, this is plenty rude enough, but as it turns out the necklace in question is a major part of the story line and has absolutely no connection to whatever sort of dirty thing you might have thought it meant. It’s a piece of jewelry, it is held together (a bit too tightly in some scenes) with a clasp, it draws misfortune on the wearer – and, unsurprisingly, it draws rude jokes at the end of the show. And in the middle, if I remember correctly, and possibly even the first time it appears on stage. In fact, one might think this item was chosen for its endless ability to feed tasteless humor; even at the end of the show I was still laughing as the jokes had become fresh again (as had my drink).

So, plot! This year we are transported to Cornwall, where Sally Hawkins (Philip Lawrence, on good form) runs a trashy little pub called the Royal Bumboy with her son Jim (Lucas Livesy, bandy legged and believably on the make) and his friend Marina the adorable young lesbian (Briony Rawle, very sunshiny). Into their lives walks baddy Long John Silver (Alex Wood, not quite evil enough for the part) and Prince Daryl of Atlantis (Luke Webber, hunky). Silver wants a map to buried treasure, Daryl wants to get home, and everyone else mostly seems to be looking for love. Will happiness be found for all (except those who have lost certain parts of their anatomy, not their hands, and had them replaced by a hook)? Will The Captain (Andrew Truluck) find his missing daughter Miranda (Ellen Butler) before his other daughter Josephine (also Ellen Butler) can take over her share of her trust fund? Will Merman Ethel become human again? Will the man in the front row that Silver keeps flirting with ever take offense? Will the audience be able to finish their drinks after they’ve been shpritzed with silly string? These are the kind of questions this show raises, and, believe me, it’s definitely not Chekov.

I was actually a bit disappointed with this production despite really liking the characters and enjoying some of the clever settings (the boat was great) and ideas (an island with tide pools filled with booze cracks me up). We had some great characters to work with (Marina was great, our dame Sally was extremely strong, and Ellen butler was hysterical in her dual role), but it didn’t really gel for me. The songs were few and forgettable, but mostly the cast didn’t seem like they’d gelled with each other. I was also really hoping for some slightly more subversive/political humor than we got … was this just too grim of a year to poke fun at the politicians? Still, this was my third panto in a row, and early in the run, so I expect the show will firm up (ho ho ho) as things settle in. If you’re looking for a gay old time, this is the right show to see, and it will only be more charming with a bit of pirates’ punch poured down your throat. Arr, mateys! No kids and just the kind of people you’d want to hang out with in the audience, why not make this where you find your Christmas cheer?

(This review is for the performance that took place on December 3, 2014. It continues through January 10th.)

Review – Billy the Kid (a Panto Western) – Charles Court Theater at Rosemary Branch

December 2, 2014

Walking up the stairs to the Rosemary Branch theater – three bus stops away from Old Street (and thus far, far from civilization) – and with a person I barely knew accompanying me, I suddenly had a very uncomfortable feeling about where my night was headed. I was going to see a panto I’d never heard of performed by an opera company in a pub theater. Hello, incipient night of a thousand horrors including the part where I have to apologize to my companion at the end of the evening for taking them to something naff! The cowboy hats on the box office staff suddenly seemed oppressive. And, seriously, how is a story about a frontier era murderer supposed to be a panto? GAAAH it was too late I couldn’t run away! IT WAS IN FRONT OF ME!

Fortunately my brief moment of pre-show nerves was completely uncalled for. I reminded myself that this was actually the company whose Patience still has me giggling into my hanky from time to time (“A Sports Direct young man!”) but there’s so much required to do good panto I struggled to see how they could manage it. As our cast slowly rolled onto the stage – Buckaroo Dan (Joanna Marie Skillett, took me a while to realize she was a leading boy and not just a blonde cowgirl), the Sheriff (Amy J Payne), and Nelly (booming bass John Savournin, also doing a turn as Nelly’s twin Lotta Hormones or something silly like that), I sat cringing a bit with fear, especially as the puns started to roll. Oh God, old songs with new lyrics and all the vibrato, it’s going to be hell! Then we had the grand entry of Billy the Kid … who, it turns out, was a goat, and Dan’s best friend. Suddenly it was all working and I was in Panto land and we were watching a fairy tale and having a good time!

Although this show steered (get it?) clear of political jokes, there was plenty of pop culture references, starting with a brilliant line up of parodied songs (“House of Fun” one of my favorites, but very surprised to hear “Bang Bang” as well) and extending to movie jokes (Ghost and Raiders of the Lost Ark). Then there was more sexual innuendo than you could shake a tent pole at (this in fact was one of the jokes) and even a hysterical peyote-fueled puppet scene in which coyotes did barbershop quartet (such an appropriate punishment for a bad goat, I think). There was plenty of audience involvement, from boos and singalongas to an, um, chance to pull on buffalo teats (more innuendo). Taking this right over the top into truly excellent, however, were the brilliant voices of the cast members. I have to say, the love duets that inevitably happen in panto to me are like unto farts that stink up the room, but in this case even the endless horror that is “Love Life Us Up Where We Belong” took on a Lakme like charm as delivered by the shimmering voices of Skillett and Nichola Jolley (playing – I kid you not – Pocabeaver). And the group work (with Bruce Graham as baddie Mumford) was just amazing – hearing those pro pipes attacking pop songs was just sheer pleasure. Frankly, I’ve probably never heard such a uniformly excellent group of singers in a panto, but to have it mixed with a charming story line and jokes that had the whole audience roaring was simply unheard of. As, I’m afraid, this panto was for me, so this cowgirl’s advice is to GET OFF YER HORSE and GETCHER FOOL SELF to the Rosemary B. “Ranch” for this rip-roaring bust up of a show.

(This review is for a performance that took place on December 1st, 2014. It continues through January 10th.)

Mini-review – Sleeping Beauty – Empire Theatre, Eden Court, Inverness

January 1, 2014

For those of you who know anything about my personal life, it’s no surprise that I went to Inverness over Christmas. Given the season, I was interested in seeing what was on at the Eden Court. To my pleasure, it was Sleeping Beauty, a panto I had never seen before. Hurray! Two tickets were secured for the Christmas Eve matinee (for under 15 quid each), and we were in!

Of all of the pantos I’ve seen this year, none of them compared to the glamor and glitz of the Eden Court’s show. The good fairy seemed sequined from head to toe in silk chiffon, the dame (Nanny Knot) must have had eight costume changes, all of which were fully developed and quite funny (the first one tartan with poofy sleeves shaped like bagpipes – hysterical!), and the sets may have had bright colors but they were very professionally done. My understanding is that Scotland goes for a lot more social and cultural investment than England does, and in this production you could see the money.

I didn’t have a feeling of the history of this show, like I do for Hackney Empire and for Greenwich, for the evolution of recurring cast members (and dancers growing up in the show) and the expectations of the audience, so my expectations may not have been set properly. But I was shocked at how unresponsive the audience was, at how hard it was to get them do callbacks, and how hard the cast was having to work to get barely a peep out of them. Now, mind, the (Inverness) Empire theater is a barn, and the first five rows of the stalls seemed to be exclusively filled with people of the silver haired persuation, but, come on, boys and girls, let’s make an effort!

As we are familiar with Cinderella, I’ll give you the panto add-ons: a goofy father who needs to hire a nanny to help him raise his daughter, Belle; an extraordinarily good looking Prince Valiant (a booted Leading Boy whose ponytail far outshone Belle’s hair and whose tunic was shorter than every other male member of the court); and a jester, Muddles, who is building a time machine that has a curious resemblance to a certain familiar telephone box. Extra special fun was brought by the inclusion of very young dancing girl fairies (for the “gift” scene), including one who looked to be about six and yet stole the show when she gave Belle her curse-breaking blessing; and the completely unnecessary scene in which Muddles, Valiant, and Nanny Box time travel to the swinging sixties in an attempt to wind up at the palace just when Belle needs to be kissed or die. (It was a great excuse to throw in a song from Hairspray.)

I have to say, though, I was feeling a bit panto-ed out the day I went. I adored the lead fairy’s melodious Scottish accent, the references to local business and Scottish politics, and I may be scarred for life by the cream pie scene that featured “sausages standing up” (Nanny: “You’re making your own jokes to this, aren’t you?”). There was a great transformation scene in which the scenery turned into a dragon (which the prince had to fight). But with the dead audience, no costumes in the world could plug the gap. This panto had all of the ingredients it needed to be a good time, but it just didn’t seem to be very appreciated, and that took away the fun for me. I hope maybe the day I went just represented a certain matinee group and not the general levels of enthusiasm, because if this is really how Inverness feels about panto, I’d pack it in and give them A Christmas Carol next year instead. Bah, humbug, indeed!

(This review is for the 1PM performance that took place December 24th, 2013. It continues through January 5th. Props to the guy who got on stage for the “Dad dancing” sequence – if only the rest of the audience had been that fun!)

“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.)

Review – Peter Pan Goes Wrong – Mischief Theatre at the Pleasance Islington

December 14, 2013

The night before going to Peter Pan Goes Wrong, I had the misfortune to drop into the Southwark Playhouse’s Jack and the Beanstalk. It said it involved squirting cows and Mexican jumping beans, but what it didn’t make clear was that only the second half was going to be the actual panto – the first half was all the actors talking about the panto they were going to do, while acting like an outtake from a Three Stooges reel – bopping each other, taking pratfalls, pouring paint down each other’s backs. Supposedly all of this was because they were not yet ready to do their panto but, in fact, this was part of their panto, and it was boring. Panto is supposed to be for the whole family but I couldn’t see how this dull thing could be appreciated by anyone over the age of ten – I mean, forget slipping in political jokes, it was just so juvenile and dull that I was considering trampling the bored 7 year olds in the front row to make my way to an exit before the interval ever rolled around. Only thirty minutes and yet it seemed at least an hour fifteen! Consider me terrified as I sat down at the Pleasance and realized I was about to watch another show that was, essentially, a panto where people hadn’t got their act together. GOOD GOD WAS THIS REALLY GROUNDHOG DAY?

Okay, well, I didn’t feel that way beforehand – I was all excited because I had been comped in as part of a “tweet up” and I actually had had a really good time at their previous show, The Play That Goes Wrong. But it’s a tricky thing to do a play about people making mistakes that doesn’t actually just feel sloppy (as I had been reminded the night before) – it takes really tight timing, impeccable stagehanding, and the perfect light touch of comedic acting, with a connection like adamant chains between the actors and a constant awareness of the audience’s mood.

So: the concept of Peter Pan Goes Wrong is that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is doing Peter Pan, with certain limitations due to their Lost Boys having all been in an accident. This is explained to us before the show by the director, with additional flourishes by the codirector, who makes it clear that all of CPDS’s shows have been fraught with misfortune. The list is long, there were “comic” (read: irritating and, to me, forced) interruptions by gurning cast members, and the two of them start bickering. I think it was sometime during this bit when I began to wonder if this really was a play that was going to go very wrong as I was finding it tedious.

Thus when they finally started the play proper, I found absolutely nothing the least bit funny. Ooh, the nursery door won’t open, ooh, everyone acts like cardboard cutouts, ooh they’re having to “pretend” the scissors are a spoon, could it be any more forced.

Then something happened that completely surprised me. The look of shock on the affected actress’ face was wholly believable. Suddenly, I was sucked in. The mucked up sound cues, the stuttering Lost Boy, the mid-show replacement for Peter Pan … I bought it all, even the resurrection of Tinkerbell. Never has a revolve stage been used to such perfect effect, not even in His Dark Materials (may the NT take note). I was laughing at a pitch only audible to dogs.

In short, it was great, both faithful to the source material and a fine work of comedy. Truth be told, it’s funnier than many of the actual pantos out there right now – the only one I had more fun at was Cinderfella. Be grateful this is being done at the big space at the Pleasance, so there’s far more room than there was when I saw this company at Traf 2: go, go now, and go often.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, December 12th, 2013. It continues through January 5th.)