You've got to hand it to Roy Hudd: he knows exactly what a traditional pantomime should contain, and makes sure it's in there. All of it. Absolutely all of it. Less committed parties would incorporate half, maybe two-thirds of the genre's enjoyably hoary customs, but Hudd seems determined to claim his bonus by ticking off every box on the checklist.
Sadler's Wells possesses the scale and grandeur, and this production the tacky opulence – sumptuous backdrops, spangly frocks and doublets – necessary to elicit oohs and aahs. An eight-piece band strikes up an overture which makes it apparent that there's no room at the inn for today's popular beat music – the most recent number in the show by a generation or so is the old ELO number "Mister Blue Sky" (but we're in medieval times, so it's amended to "Master Blue Sky"). The adult and juve chrouses hoof their way across the stage with cheery grins (or, in the case of the Babette Langford Young Set, the kind of unsettling rictus first perfected by Ms Langford's daughter Bonnie), and there's even a "spesh" in the form of talented young fiddler Gary Lovini – admittedly, you seldom hear Cossack dances played in the East Midlands, but you seldom hear them played anywhere with such flair.
Jack Tripp is one of the profession's consummate dames: grotesque, camp and irrepressible, but a cartoon figure who stops this side of Gerald Scarfe territory. Keith Barron relishes his villainous role as the Sheriff of Nottingham, giving out to the audience almost as much pretend spleen as he gets back from them. Julie Mullins (the only Oz soap star I've encountered in panto this year) eschews almost all pretence at acting, delivering her lines straight out and belting songs with a ferocity which may have dislodged a filling or two in the house. Hudd himself and Geoffrey Hughes carry the bulk of the comedy as the robbers, 'Orful Onslow and 'Orrible 'Uddy (what quaint names). They lumber cheekily through all the conventional food-fights, classroom scenes, "the gorilla's behind you" sequences and whatnot with undeniable verve.
But, well, after two and a half hours it begins to pall a little, and there's still half an hour to go. You can have too much of a good thing, and Babes In The Wood ends up, alas, like Hughes' ample midriff towards the end of Act One – more than a little over-egged.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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