Normally I approach the pre-Christmas theatre season with, not trepidation or dislike, but a sort of grim resolve to just get through it and out the other side... like Steve McQueen on that motorbike towards the end of The Great Escape, with just those last few fields separating me from the Switzerland of the new year. Of course, I always end up back in the cooler. (And no, I can’t believe I just compared myself to Steve McQueen either.) I was also wary of taking over the Yuletide beat in Theatre Record this year from the blessed Verena Winter, who is literally a doctor of panto.
And yet, despite these reservations, and despite also the superficial repetitiveness of my fare – three Aladdins, two Sleeping Beautys, two Philip Pullman adaptations and so forth – I’ve felt more engaged on my December rounds this year than for some time. More than ever I came away with a sense of the range of approaches possible within a single area, and a sense that those approaches are far more often vibrant and inventive than we may give them credit for being, even when they don’t in the event come off.
Take that trio of Aladdins, for instance. Guildford has a strong reputation for straight-down-the-line panto excellence, and in many ways this year’s production bore it out. Royce Mills is a terrific dame: full of double-entendres, but his brand of camp is so old-school cuddly that no-one could possibly take offence at them. Still, he gets beaten off the starting blocks by Sylvester McCoy’s Abanazar, lewdly asking the audience, “Shall I rub my ring?” McCoy is a solid bet in this kind of show: game for a quick nod to his Dr Who past in the form of a Tardis gag, and even revisiting one of the daft stunts he used to perform 30-odd years ago in the Ken Campbell Roadshow. (He’s also the subject of the most delicious in-joke of the season: when Abanazar is captured at the end of the show, and the Emperor asks, “What shall we do with this villain?”, up pipes the reply, “Make him do another tour of Pride And Prejudice!” – a farrago which began in Guildford earlier last autumn.)
The odd thing about this Aladdin to my mind, though, is that it’s clearly strongest the closest it sticks to the formula of set-pieces, conventional characters and so on. Paul Hendy makes a fine Wishee Washee – as current or former children’s TV entertainers often do in that kind of big-best-mate role in panto – but when his script tries to be sharp or ring the changes, it seems to flounder. Many of the scripted exchanges are trite (no, the wrong kind of trite), and the decision to include a handful of musical numbers from Half A Sixpence is just bizarre. The ambivalence is personified in Britt Ekland as the Genies of the Ring and the Lamp. One hopes she knows that she’s there as a butt of humour, for acting that’s not even wooden but chipboard and for the double-edged irony of lines like “We [genies] all possess the secret of eternal youth”... but I’m not entirely sure.
That sense of strength in tradition, weakness in innovation, is much more graphic in The Old Vic’s Aladdin. First things first: Ian McKellen is absolutely first-rate as a dame. He clearly knows and loves the tradition, and luxuriates in getting the chance to wear it for himself just like his endless series of spectacularly naff frocks. It’s also the sheer force of McKellen’s enjoyment that salvages a number of otherwise too-cute self-conscious references, such as “Don’t encourage me, or I’ll go on longer than a Trevor Nunn production!” or his response to Aladdin being chased by police for the alleged theft of a ring: “Oh, not another Ring...!” His legs aren’t bad, either.
The rest of Bille Brown’s version simply tries too hard to be different. Joe McFadden is a natural Wishee Washee, all bouncy bonhomie; unfortunately, he’s cast (possibly out of deference to internal rhyme) as Aladdin. There is no Wishee Washee; instead, there’s Dim Sum, a strangely ineffectual moustachioed family friend whose under-written part leaves Maureen Lipman adrift. Her plight, though, is as nothing compared to that of “the bundle of fun that is Sam Kelly” (as the Society of London Theatre’s listings recently described him). Kelly can be relied upon to pump up the chuckle quotient from the thinnest of raw material, but even he is becalmed here, and downright wasted. Brown’s script, and Sean Mathias’s production, too often felt... not as arid as an essay on pantomime, but rather like a photograph that has all the requisite elements in shot, well composed, lit and defined, but nevertheless fails to capture the unique radiance of the arrangement. It understands the form intellectually, but not viscerally.
As for Susie McKenna’s Hackney Empire Aladdin, well, just light the blue touch paper, stand back and wait for the colourful explosions. This is a show that knows exactly where its audience is at, and gets in there and mixes it with them, yet without losing the essence of panto. Tameka Empson’s brand of cheek is put to excellent use in her Genie of the Ring, Kat B is a Duracell-powered Wishee Washee, and if Nikki Stokes is way too shallow as Aladdin, the rest of the production more than compensates. Most of all, of course, Clive Rowe as Widow Twankey. I’d seen Rowe in a variety of roles (most recently in Simply Heavenly, from which he took leave of absence for this bout of Twankey-panky), but surprisingly never as a dame. Now I know why he has such a strong reputation in the field. Let me just say this: ye gods. The man is indefatigable. He can also bellow louder than a full house at the Hackney Empire, which... well, stop and marvel at the concept.
Hackney has long been one of the two enjoyably raucous pantos in London, the other being at Stratford East. Or so I thought. But I realised this year that I haven’t been to a Stratford panto since 2001, and consequently have missed the innovations of Hope Massiah and Delroy Murray. I’ve become a big fan of Murray’s in the course of 2004, from his musical direction of The Big Life at Stratford to his discreet but clever score for Blest Be The Tie at the Royal Court Upstairs, and it’s his musical sensibilities that underpin the change of tack in the E15 pantos such as this year’s Sleeping Beauty. Rather than either cheesy standards or cut-from-a-template musical numbers, Murray and Massiah have written a show that’s full of contemporary R&B. I’m not wild about the genre, and hate the term’s appropriation to describe such relatively anodyne material compared to ’60s glories, but that’s exactly what’s on offer here, and I’ve no hesitation admiring the show’s craft and strength on its chosen ground.
For my personal taste, though, the Young Vic-in-exile’s Sleeping Beauty at the Barbican is simply the business. A whole world that’s rich, strange, unsettling, chucklesome, occasionally downright infantile (repeated fart gags ahoy!)... but as complex and wondrous as all the best stories, that have both the magic of story and the wisdom of showing you real life through a colourful prism. Writer/director Rufus Norris acknowledges that the ideas for the production were first nurtured a decade or so ago in the too-briefly brilliant atmosphere afforded by the Arts Threshold venue. Even after all these years, I still cherish Helena Lymbery’s compelling performance there as Prospero, and I’ve been an admirer of hers ever since. Her Fairy Goody here is in some ways the greatest part she’s had in that time: a good-bad, honest but flawed, contradictory creature who’s plainly doing her best, both supernatural and intensely human at once. Even if the rest of my December had been pitiless drudgery, this show would have raised the entire season to glory.
Those Pullmans in brief: The Firework-Maker’s Daughter good but not great (review elsewhere); His Dark Materials less charismatic in terms of the central clutch of performances but much improved by Nicholas Wright’s revisions, which render the story and atmosphere crisper and harder-edged. The puckishly militant feeling grew on me through the day that this is a production that needs to find a host venue somewhere in Bush’s America, as a civic duty.
As for Lily Savage’s perfunctory (and, in the case of supporting player Fogwell Flax, almost fascinatingly unfunny) Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, the biggest laugh I got was before the show, when a young man asked me for my autograph thinking I was filmmaker Michael Moore. Alas, he’s rather more svelte than me. Happy New Year! (FX: sound of baseball thwacking repeatedly against cell wall; fade up end theme.)
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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