Hen and Chickens, London N1
Oxford Playhouse
December, 2001

The Peter Morris who co-wrote the musical The Rose And The Ring at Highbury's Hen and Chickens is not to be confused with the Peter Morris whose The Age Of Consent, lauded on the Edinburgh Fringe, arrives at the Bush in the new year. The latter Morris is audacious in the intelligence with which he consistently tackles high-profile moral issues, usually of human exploitation of one kind or another; the former is audacious principally in the extent to which he camps up his stories and lyrics.

However, not all the actors in what, for pub theatre, is a stellar cast including Julie-Alannah Brighten, Paul Keating, Joanna Kirkland and Oliver Senton realise that there are still limits to how extravagant they can legitimately be: Morris's script and Michael Jeffrey's poppy tunes never pretend to be more than gleeful hokum, but performers still need to subordinate themselves to the material, even if it's a fairy tale about love, magic and wicked Sir Jasper-type usurpers. Conversely, one or two others seem awkward performing as broadly as required. Only Keating as the lovestruck, dispossessed Prince Giglio consistently gets the level perfect, reminding me once again that several years ago I terribly underestimated his skills in the first couple of his performances which I reviewed.

The Rose And The Ring, in the words of one of the company, "does exactly what it says on the tin", and given its shoestring budget is often a small wonder. Mother Goose at the Oxford Playhouse is similarly unpretentious. Indeed, Paul Knight's Oxford shows are the only pantomimes I actually volunteer for at this time of year. They never bother with big names to draw the audiences in; they simply get on with telling the traditional tale with traditional panto production values.

This year seems a little less exuberant than usual, possibly because it uses one of the thinner stories in the genre's repertoire. Russell Dixon is bouncy throughout, but only gets into full-throttle dame mode after Mother Goose's transformation in the second half. Chris Scott's squire scores a respectable seven on the hissometer, and Andrew Norris and Alison Senior as young lovers Tommy Tucker and Lucy Lockett are so appealing even to the kids that their first kiss gets more "ooh"s than "ugh"s.

The mandatory discreet handful of local gags and plugs for sponsors Debenhams are present and correct, and given a schedule of mostly morning and afternoon performances, there's even a deliciously arcane in-joke for the teachers: when Mother Goose sets up a dame school, she renames herself Madame de Goosey in a nod to the head of the NASUWT union. And with musical numbers ranging from Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World" to S Club 7's "Reach For The Stars", Knight as ever provides something for everyone without having to pander to showbiz scalphunting.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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