What makes a traditional pantomime? One of the "canonical" stories, yes; the approved rituals of "Oh, no, it isn't!" and "Behind you!", and all the other time-honoured business and conventions... but you can pick and choose from the list of ingredients; you don't have to put a tick after every single one of them.
Thus, for instance, Cinderella at Windsor is the only show of the dozen and more Christmas offerings I have seen this year which features a genuine "spesh" (speciality act). True, Bristol's Jack And The Beanstalk briefly showcases the gymnastic talents of one of its child chorus, but this is during one of the conventional visual-spectacle sequences; at Windsor, everything stops so that Eric Sykes on stage can have a tympani duel with the percussionist in the pit. Windsor's is also the only offering I have seen this year to attempt to trade on "names" in the cast, most of whom are either minor or had the peak of their fame two or three lifetimes ago from their young audience's viewpoint. Even Sykes seems past his best and sadly adrift in this undistinguished production. The very backdrops have seen better days: I specifically remember some of them from last year's version at Oxford.
Roy Hudd can be relied upon to write a rollicking good script, but his Robinson Crusoe at Watford this year seems to rollick less than usual. His long-time associate Chris Emmett dames it up nicely, and it is something of a wonder that the old song "Lydia The Tattooed Lady" can be rewritten in a clean enough form for a family audience, but the gags feel fewer and weaker than previously. The topical references are outright thin on the ground by Huddy's standards, and much too much is made, too often, of all the henchmen of villainous pirate Sebastian Smelly (Graham Hamilton in fine form) deserting him because he wished relegation upon Watford Town FC.
Jack And The Beanstalk is, in many ways, more modest than any of the other "proper" pantos I have seen this year, yet it is probably the most enjoyable of the lot. The spectacles are not that spectacular (although both the twelve-foot giant and the pantomime cow do solid work), it gets several marks deducted for incorporating among its musical numbers the loathsome "Barbie Girl", and at two and three-quarter hours it is definitely on the long side, burt director Elwyn Johnson and his cast at the Old Vic simply get on with the fun at every opportunity. Co-writer Chris Harris as Dame Dolabella Durdham scarcely ever actually "plays the dame"; most of the time he is simply a funny bloke who happens to be in a succession of frocks. Likewise, Mark Buffery as Sir Beastly de Bedminster winningly combines moustachio-twirling villain and inept sidekick in one, so that the booing he receives is curiously affectionate. Both those characters' names are indicative of the raft of local references crammed in without ever seeming laboured (in a parody of the Bristolian accent, even the giant's oven is an Agal), and the teams of children are more frequently and fully incorporated into the action than in any panto I have seen this or perhaps any other year. Fairy Blodwyn of Builth Wells (Lara J. West) began by bidding us "Croeso i pantomime", and the show creates an air of genuine welcome and mucking-about-together-ness rather than the fake jollity to which one is so often subjected at this season. Oh, yes, it does!
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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