Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15
Opened 15 December, 2010
The borough of Newham, in which the Theatre Royal, Stratford East sits, is the most multicultural in the U.K., and sometimes the theatre’s annual pantomimes have been a little too concerned with addressing that constituency, so that shows ended up with a mishmash of genres and ethnicities and not enough story or fun. Writers Trish Cooke and Robert Hyman have avoided such excesses this year: their version of this tale speaks to all, but doesn’t strain to do so. My panto stopwatch recorded the satisfactory results of a tolerable 42 minutes until “Behind you!” whereas the first “Oh, no, it isn’t!” came a zippy six minutes into the show.
Derek Elroy, as Grannie, is a comparatively gentle Jamaican dame rather than one of the garish grotesques seen in many other pantos, but he engages the audience well. Chloe Allen’s Little Red is the kind of defiantly un-girly girl who is a staple of Stratford East pantos. The venue’s major asset is, for once, the villain. Michael Bertenshaw as Lupinus Wolf has played so many baddies here down the years that he gets to parody himself: when, disguised as a little old lady, he meets Red in the forest, he first offers her a poisoned apple, then some magic beans and finally new lamps for old before going into the traditional pretending-to-be-Grannie routine. Marcus Ellard as Ben the Woodcutter decorously refers only to his “axe” for two hours before the longed-for double entendre spurts out in an entire musical number explaining how it’s not the size of your chopper that’s important, it’s what you do with it that counts.
Although the show has no messy “slosh” routine, it compensates with a grobbly second-act scene set in the Wolf’s belly, in which Little Red, Grannie and the Three Little Pigs (for it is they) encounter characters named Tripe, Gunge and Bile before being freed by the teamwork of human and animal woodland folk alike (I didn’t say there was no right-on material here). Omar F Okai’s production is thoroughly jolly, and the characteristically raucous Stratford audience doubles the fun. Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling that in recent years Stratford, whilst continuing to be an excellent local theatre, has lost that extra something that so often attracted audiences from further and wider.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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