Christmas shows fall into one of four categories: the pantomime or traditional event, the big musical, the new children's/family show, and the deliberate departure from all kinds of convention. It is as well I get some kind of taxonomy clear at the start of the season, since this month I shall be seeing fifteen shows in twelve cities within eighteen days... all for your benefit, dear reader. The first brace of them sit at either extreme of the spectrum: Big Trouble In The Little Bedroom at Hull Truck Theatre is an entirely new musical for children, whilst Oxford's Sleeping Beauty is as traditional as it is possible to be without encroaching on the Players' Theatre's territory of using original Victorian scripts.
Big Trouble... is John Godber's second musical collaboration with John Pattison, and his first show written for a family audience. Its premise is purest fantasy: one night the Norse god Thor falls into young Stan's bedroom and enlists the lad to find his missing hammer, without which the Viking deity is loud but powerless. However, Godber roots his action in a grey everyday world: Stan is an outsider at school, misses his truck-driver father on his long absences, and suffers from generally low self-esteem. His initial resistance to, and final embrace of, the idea of adventure is a means of finding the resources within himself to make a better life.
It nearly works. Godber comes adrift, though, when he blends this plausible reality with a dream-logic where scenes come and go for no real reason, confusing the narrative; it does not look like introducing vibrant contrast so much as just sticking the escapist bits in where and whenever he fancies. Pattison's score and musical arrangements are strong and skilled, except when he feels compelled to nod towards hip-hop; the show contains a clutch of musically and rhythmically leaden sort-of-raps. But it remains a potentially highly useful way to introduce children to the idea of theatre without offering them artificial confections which bear no relation to anything else they will ever see on a stage.
Not that such confections aren't often enjoyable in themselves. The regular Oxford panto team – director/choreographer Michele Hardy and writer Paul Knight – always play as straight a bat as possible: traditional story, characters and routines, a few doggerel couplets from the fairy, and so on. The occasional local gag is inserted about Oxford United or the ring road, and we get to roar ourselves hoarse with "Oh, no, it isn't!", "Behind you!" and the singalong with the audience divided down the middle; as an added bonus, court jester Pickles and dame Nanny Annie are also given a recipe scene culminating in the venerable "Let me have it!" gag. The selection of standard songs ranges from the classic "Make 'Em Laugh" to the barely-five-minutes-ago "Livin' La Vida Loca". Whilst there is no sign of a panto horse or cow, Princess Briar Rose's toys come charmingly to life at one point, and later on valiant Prince Michael conducts a black-lit battle with an impressive dragon.
The Playhouse team do not try to inject extraneous glitz by signing up any big, or even moderate, names for these shows; they rely on the productions themselves to do the work of entertaining the audience. And (although there was rather too much of the Timmy Mallett about Neil Rutherford's Pickles for my personal liking) if the responses of the Brownie troop amid which I found myself seated were anything to go by, Sleeping Beauty succeeds as solidly as ever.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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