The panto season is when theatre critics tend to garner opinions from children – but let me assure you that it is far more entertaining taking along an adult friend who happens never to have seen a panto in her life and watching as the culture shock engulfs her. We are all aware that panto is, in a modern theatrical context, sui generis, but it can help to be reminded of this by seeing someone else's stunned responses to, say, a forest ballet featuring a baggily-costumed hedgehog, or a musical set list which progresses from "Consider Yourself" and "There's A Kind Of Hush" to "Spice Up Your Life" – this last number sung by the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.
Roy Hudd is pretty much the guv'nor as regards panto script writing, and although it takes a while to warm up, Watford's Babes In The Wood follows Hudd's usual strategy: the time-honoured rituals of "When I nod my head, you hit it" and "He's behind you!" rub shoulders with quickie gags about the Blair government and the Teletubbies.
Longtime Hudd associate Chris Emmett has had the dame's role of Nanny Fannakapan tailored to fit him like a tastelessly bright polka-dot glove; eventually even my bemused friend was joining in the chorus of "Wotcher, Fanny!" Nick Staverson brings more energy than personality to the role of Hopeless Horace the robber, until the end when – as kids from the audience are invited onstage – it becomes apparent just why a former Children's ITV presenter was cast in the role; Staverson deals with them like the pro he is.
John Pennington has not yet fully settled into panto-villain mode as the Sheriff, but will plainly deliver the goods once he does so; Carrie Ellis as Robin Hood is frankly something of a cipher. But hey, this is panto, where one doesn't sit stroking one's chin at the plausibility of characterisations – one gets on with cheering, hissing and trying to catch the chocolates thrown from the stage. Oh, and Mark Hinton and Gemma Fripp can also take pleasure in my friend's verdict – "The set designs were terrific!" – once she had picked her jaw back off the floor.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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