Whilst other theatres attempt to infuse their Christmas shows with the ethos of Victorian pantomime, the Players' Theatre beneath Charing Cross Arches continues its tradition of simply staging a Victorian pantomime. Whittington Junior And His Sensation Cat was first performed in 1870 and, apart from the odd topical pun inserted about the mayoral prospects of Mr Livingstone and Lord Archer, is entirely untampered-with. It is, as ever, preceded by a brief selection of singalong music-hall "joys"; the Players' is, as the authentically orotund master of ceremonies Dominic Le Foe reminds us, "the only theatre in London where people pay a premium price for the privilege of amusing themselves."
Geoffrey Brawn's production is replete with atrocious wordplay, agreeably painted backdrops and rewritten songs and arias by everyone from Stephen Foster to Wagner (put it this way: the climactic number is a version of the Siegfried Idyll). Young Dick hears the message of the bells plainly enough, but has no intention of embracing his destiny, fleeing instead with his beloved and his faithful moggy to Algiers whilst pursued by his employer, wife, clerks and the beautiful Rosemarye's patrician suitor, in a balloon. As fate insists on entrapping Dick, the audience is given plenty of opportunities to cheer, boo and groan at antediluvian jokes, but there is none of the new-fangled frippery of "Oh yes, he is!" or "He's behind you!" The cast rollick and anachronise their way through the matter, and if Catherine Terry never actually slaps her thigh, we at least have the consolation that Philpot the clerk is played by one Barnaby Pout, a man surely named in the foreknowledge that one day he would participate in a Victorian entertainment.
The Players' has a distinct audience demographic, of middle-aged and elderly folk who embrace nostalgia for an age before their own in much the same way that their grandchildren might indulge in platform-soles-and-flares 1970s camp. (On the night I attended I was one of, I would estimate, fewer than a dozen spectators under the age of 50.) It is a faithful audience, many of whom evidently attend regularly, know the gleefully hackneyed phrases which Le Foe pours forth and join in or even anticipate his utterances. Brawn and Le Foe know their market and cater for it with skill, dedication and enjoyment, but Whittington Junior remains more a curio than a novelty.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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