The Old Vic, London SE1
Opened 9 December, 2007

Posh panto. The term has really caught on this year, as it grew apparent that Ian McKellen's Widow Twankey at this address in 2004 and '05 was not a freak outbreak but rather the harbinger of a fashionable and lucrative sub-genre. And this show is as posh as they come. Fiona Laird's production has no names to match McKellen's: the only stars appearing here who are readily familiar to the public at large are Sandi Toksvig as the Narrator and Pauline Collins as the Fairy Godmother, but the rest of the cast is jam-packed with those whose names, faces and copious talents are known to more regular theatregoers. Its production values are of the toppermost, and it knows its constituency precisely: one of the biggest laughs at the performance I attended was for a line praising Tesco because "It keeps the riff-raff out of Waitrose."

The gag is typical of a show which simultaneously celebrates and lampoons itself and us, without either contempt or insufferable smugness. Stephen Fry's script is very frequently filthier than anything I have ever encountered in pantomime, yet never nudge-nudge vulgar. At other moments it wears its recondite knowledge as lightly as, well, a magical glass slipper; it even includes F.E. Smith's antique witticism that "an 'ell of an 'eadache" requires a couple of aspirates, in the full knowledge that the line will either zoom past overhead or flop limply. This, too, is part of the fun. It is Fry through and through, and one can hear and almost see him in the wildly dissimilar figure of Toksvig, smoking-jacketed and moustachioed as she is for her role. His song lyrics (nicely scored by Anne Dudley, erstwhile supremo of The Art Of Noise) are similarly adroit, and include a fine patter song about vacuous party folk and a poignant duet in which Madeleine Worrall's Cinderella and Paul Keating's Buttons share dreams of their ideal man... for in this version it's not Cinders for whom Buttons' heart beats. This seam of gay gags, too, is celebratory rather than cheaply derisory.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's sets are opulent whilst still resembling cut-outs and oversized doll's-houses in best panto style. Mark Lockyer and Hal Fowler make a fine pair of ugly sisters, Dolce and Gabbana; Lockyer's Dolce is almost as grotesque as the real Amy Winehouse, to whom in full slap he bears an unsettling resemblance. Joseph Millson moves from heroic roles at the RSC to make a square-jawed Prince Charming, and if Worrall (or Fry through her) tempts fate by asking the audience, "Boys and girls, am I colourless and insipid?", she never lacks appeal and gradually acquires backbone. Even a raft of theatrical in-jokes are carried off with an insouciance lacking in Bille Brown's script for McKellen last time around. Where that often felt like an essay on panto, this is almost Fabergé craftsmanship: not unreal compared to other pantomimes, but rather hyper-real. It cannot be denied that, as a production, it feels pretty pleased with itself... but it has positively oodles to be pleased about.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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