Richmond Theatre
Opened 14 December, 2011
New Wimbledon Theatre
Opened 15 December, 2011
** / ***

At this time of year, London’s larger suburban theatres offer pantomime at its most traditional: eye-catching sets, sumptuous costumes, and celebrity casts bent on making up in energy what they have lacked in rehearsal time and substantial scripting. The scripts themselves sketch out the conventional tales, laced with jokes alternately end-of-the-pier risqué and Christmas-cracker groanworthy.
Both these shows are scripted by Eric Potts who, as I observed last year in my review of his travesty of Peter Pan, is not big on subtlety. As one of the more liberal reviewers, I am unaccustomed to complaining about vulgarity but, well, if my ears did not deceive me (although thanks to the actor’s poor diction they may have) and that Ugly Sister in Cinderella really did make a remark about vajazzling, just imagine yourself as a parent facing your bewildered youngster’s questioning.
Potts also directs Wimbledon’s Dick Whittington and plays the dame… which, in a show that also features the pantomime début of Dame Edna Everage, is pretty damn hubristic. Edna, probably the world’s most famous and venerable drag comedienne (so to speak), nominally plays the good fairy who helps Dick vanquish the evil King Rat and return to London to be elected Lord Mayor. In practice, though, from her first appearance above our heads as she is flown onto the stage in a wombat-shaped seat, she simply Ednas, gently but bitchily taking the mickey out of all around her: audience, fellow performers, script, the whole business. I suspect this show was of the standard hour-each-way duration before Edna’s insertions. Barry Humphries, the man beneath the sequins and the mauve rinse, is now 77 years old, and Edna too is beginning to slow down, but she remains the most vibrant element in this show despite the effortful daming of Potts and the enthusiastic best-mate business of Kev Orkian as Idle Jack.
Gary Wilmot at Richmond is far more unforced in his chumminess as Buttons, but he is frankly too old even for panto plausibility: when a greying Buttons declares that he is in love with a Cinderella young enough to be his daughter (former EastEnder Kellie Shirley), something feels dubious. Much of the patter at Richmond, too, feels tailored to a particularly middle-class audience: surely only here would the description of Prince Charming’s equerry Dandini as “an ordinary working man” pass without either a hoot of derision or a gasp of incredulity. (As against that, Richmond is also home turf for a “Fenton!” joke.)
And if it seems at first that much of Wimbledon’s budget has gone on the casting of Dame Edna, think again. In Act Two, a 3-D undersea animation sequence, in which we feel as if the fish are in the same room with us, puts on hold for several minutes the live action involving human beings who actually are. A fine gimmick, but insane in a live entertainment. Thank heavens for Dame Edna and her tart flavour of “niceness”.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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