When I first moved here, I was positive the whole concept of adult panto was to thrown in a bunch of Benny Hill style jokes. Now there’s no doubt in my mind that dildos are far more prominent (OOH ER!) in “adult” pantos than they are in the normal ones (and that the jokes can be very cheap), it’s become much more noticeable that the things that I love in panto – specifically, topical, political humor – get a much stronger role in a show for grown ups. Yeah, sure, we still have dames and songs and singalongs and candy tosses (although not as many slop scenes as you might expect), but the genre really has become quite powerful. This year there are so many offerings I’m not even going to be able to take them all in (OOH ER!), but I’ll give you a quick recap of the three I’ve seen to date, then add in some notes about Prince Bendover in Boots and Hairy Poppers and the Deathly Swallows at the end of the week.
So: at the head of the class this year is The Family Fierce’s Beauty and the Beast, currently on stage at the Hen and Chickens. While I’ve seen Lolo Brow and Scarlett O’Hora perform burlesque before, I’d never seen the team Fierce on stage together. This ensemble is a super queer group of folk crossing most of the gender boundaries, so you’re getting quite a bit more than just dames and principal boys – what you’re getting is a crack squad of super stars, every one of whom is completely capable of holding the stage all on their lonesome (in fact O’Hora kept cracking me up when she was doing scene shifting duties – even in the dark, she failed to disappear into the background).
This year has been full of so much political tomfoolery that the field for humor was practically sprouting into the audience with laughs waiting to be harvested. We’ve got classic jokes given in context: a drunk housekeeper (Mrs. Potts) whose children are various cups; the raging baddie who was drawn straight from The Devil Wears Prada; but then we had a poke at the ridiculously hateful treatment of all immigrants (including students!) by the home office, and an extended jibe at the flip-floppery of British politicians that provides the backbone of the curse affecting this household. Then, just for giggles (with a very sharp point), there’s an extended laugh at cis white boy entitlement courtesy of “Ghastly” Gaston’s extended attempts to seduce Belle. With Gaston played to the sexist hilt by an (extremely) sexy woman with stuffed trousers, the scene was both sizzing with sarcasm and, er, well, genuine hotness (for me). Wow! I might have expected terrible gags, but I never expected as much wit and undermining of the dominant paradigm as this show dished out, plus rampaging dance numbers, great singing, and just all around awesomeness. THIS WAS A FIVE STAR BABY!
Next up in terms of good time was Prince Bendover in Boots at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern (doors open at seven and show is an 8 PM start). The venue is intimate and designed to encourage drinking, and with a show like this you’ll feel very inspired to knock them back. The play is very much from the gay male side of the LGBTQ spectrum – women in the audience are ignored (except for various shout outs at the “lesbians,” which was every female) and references to women are very much of the gaping/fishy variety. Still, with a charming, sensual Dolly Purr-ton (Topsie Redfern) as our Puss (constantly trying to get Cumalot – Adam Gass – to “stroke” her), you couldn’t help but get pulled in to the on-stage fun. Puss, for once, is an American country belle, which makes for a lot more fun with the costuming – I mean, if you think Nashville glamour you’ve got the general idea – and also a very different kind of interaction between boy and cat than with the usual tom.
The whole cast has got piles of stage presence, but there must be a special call out for Faye Reeves as the all-purpose villainess who was constantly aware of the fourth wall and making rather daring choices to get her fellow thespians to break character (does she make up new magic mirror rhymes every night? – she must). The improv and contemporary references were fully front and center, as well as all sorts of adult jokes, but instead of just being dull and crude, the overall effect is lots of belly laughs and no dull moments. Win!
Now this is all quite odd because last year’s show, Charming Dick, has actually transferred this year to the Cockpit Theater, where I saw it the week before Boots. It’s just not nearly as good of a show, despite having a cast that seemed to be similarly talented. The jokes fell flat, the story (a witch is trying to close all of the gay bars – a bit too close to home, really) just didn’t have a lot of pizazz, and while I liked the old school Hollywood vibe of the song Sisters (very appropriate this time of the year), I just found the dildo gags and wanking scenes, I don’t know, not all that funny. And I do love a dirty joke. So this was the show that did the least for me, and I was just as sober at it as I was at the others.
Final review (for now): Hairy Poppins, the final outing of Access All Areas on the Battersea Barge. There were a lot of the old jokes but a sad lack of Fancy Chance, which meant I was not able to get my drag king vibe on. But still, with the half man/half female child (“to cut down on cast size”), references to hateful immigration laws (do I sense a trend), use of both classic Broadway tunes and Queen, and utter skewering of a family classic film (Hairy Poppins also keeps a bottle nearby), there was much to love in this show – and a special treat for me because I got to drool over Dusty Limits (albeit from a far back corner so no chance of ME getting called on stage). It all seemed a little bit slap dash, to be honest, but since the entire run sold out before it had opened and it closed December 13th, well, it hardly matters. I still had a good time and nobody stole MY drink off of the table.
There’s one last show in my bouquet of faded roses: Hairy Poppers and the Deathly Swallows which takes the entire panto world into a more updated story universe. Tickets are available online but almost no information about the show is otherwise available, and may I recommend you make sure safe search is on when you do a search for the show by title?
Anyway, Happy Panto Day and remember: It’s Behind You!