The title of the post isn't to do with the usual artifical state that the public assume actors are in most of the time... It's actually part of a quote by George Bernard Shaw: "A drama critic is a man who leaves no turn unstoned." I'm not sure why he said it; but as I putting myself into the role of Critic for this blog I thought it would be clever of me to reference it. And it was, wasn't it?!
Another of my favourite quotes is from J.M. Barrie's play The Twelve-Pound Look: "One's religion is whatever he is most interested in." I saw Edward Fox in that play when I was at school and for months afterwards told people that my religion was pantomime! It's quite a strange thing to do, I'll admit; and I might be the only person to have ever ascribed a religious connotation to panto - but at least you can see I've always been passionate about it!
Anyway, let's get on with my reason for this talk of quotes: the second part of my look at the pantos I saw this year...
CINDERELLA, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford
Guildford embraced a true "the show must go on" mentality this year, continuing to perform even though the Front of House and Orchestra Pit were filling up with water during the Winter flooding. It's really admirable, as a pantomime is exactly what the locals would have needed to take their minds off everything. It definitely is a local panto too, but with commercial sensibilities and consequently you did get a sense of a production that was floundering. That said, Bonnie Langford was the Fairy Godmother and continued to give a masterclass in performance. Her every movement is precise, energetic and fully realised, she engages with the audience and listens to them and, most importantly, looks like she's having a really good time! The same goes for Jamie Brook as Buttons: the audience loved him and he was clearly having a great time. Performers like these two, who obviously understand panto, can really transform a production and give it heart.
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Stamford Arts Centre
This was a trip to see two of my very good friends Phil and Vikki Norton play Simple Simon and Fairy Meadows. I am massively biased, but they were both excellent. I've never seen them from the audience before and I felt a little emotional at the walk-down, I was so impressed! Phil is a proper panto-phile like myself and he also directed this production and got excellent results. I've seen a lot of corpsing this year (which I am guilty of too) and I find it very tedious, as it's usually self-indulgent and not inclusive of the audience. There was no corpsing here. The story was played with conviction and integrity which meant that the audiences involvement in the plot was never broken. And it was a proper panto! Phil could teach some bigger companies a thing or two!
SLEEPING BEAUTY, Park Theatre
This is another new venue producing panto and like the Southwark Playhouse in my previous blog they were clearly a bit scared of fully embracing the genre. The show was very inventive: there were projections, a made-up language, costume changes in front of the audience, new songs and a real dog; but they jury's out on whether it was a panto. I sense that Jez Butterworth who wrote the show (and played Dame the afternoon I saw it) felt that maybe the venue was too good for panto, but understood that pantomime is a good money spinner; resulting in a panicked panto / musical hybrid. The audience clearly wanted a panto. I enjoyed the show, but I would have had a lot more fun if I'd known what I was watching: a pantomime or a musical.
CINDERELLA, Gordon Craig Theatre Stevenage
This is one of the longest running pantomimes in the country. I went with Jamie and Simon from Magic Beans to a performance on its penultimate weekend and I was stunned by the amount of energy that was still on the stage. During a four week run you can sometimes feel yourself flagging, so I can't imagine how this cast must have felt. It was a lovely production. It made me feel how I felt when I went to see pantos as a child. I'm not sure if that's because it was a) old fashioned, or b) more imaginative than a lot of current productions that do the required routines and then move on. Buttons did a lovely and funny gag with a lamp stand; the Ugly Sisters had their hairstyles changed and their bones bent in a beauty salon and the two principal boys were played by girls and given real stage time, not just cursory entrances. The fairy was played by Gillian Wright, of EastEnders fame and she was the full package as a star name, she even sang and flew at the same time!
SNOW WHITE, Birmingham Hippodrome
The Birmingham panto is the one that I always eagerly anticipate from the moment the cast is announced. This year was no exception with, literally, an all-star cast on the poster. It used to be common to have at least four or five celebrities on a panto bill, but now a venue is lucky if it has more than one. I think that has happened for a reason though as our tastes in panto have changed. The story has always been important, but in modern productions it takes precedent over stopping for gags and speciality acts. This suits only having a few star names as no one is jostling for stage time. However, in Birmingham the story was basically just on the poster, there wasn't much evidence of it on stage. It was nice to see the cast do their own thing, but sometimes I think we would have happily forsake another ten minute ventriloquism routine for a bit of plot. The big signing for this show was Gok Wan and I thought he was great: full of energy and enthusiasm. It was also Gary Wilmot's first time as Dame, which is one of the reasons I was so excited to see it, and he didn't disappoint. You could clearly see that he has worked with some of the best in the business and you wouldn't have known that it was his first time. I would have loved for him to be on stage more and have more changes - but I think we're lucky that he was on as much as he was; Snow White barely got a look in!
So, there we have it! My critical round-up of the pantomimes I saw this year. Did you see any of the same productions? What did you think of the ones that you saw? Let me know!