I found last year’s pantomime season so soul destroying that I promised myself that I would limit the number of shows I saw this year. I started off really well: there weren’t actually that many productions I was interested in seeing; and yet, I’ve ended up seeing as many, if not more, than last year.
I can't quite remember what it was that nearly destroyed the panto going experience for me last year. I think it was that I was very excited and very few productions actually matched my expectations. This year I have approached the season with zero expectations and it turns out that that might be the best thing to do. Taking this approach I’ve noticed that audiences take a very similar one! And from what I’ve seen it’s that lack of expectation that seems to allow a lot of companies to get away with producing very poor shows. In fact, I think audiences might have an even more damaging expectation: for pantomime to be bad; which is a result of their local panto becoming gradually worse and them not realising.
Panto has always had the reputation of being a bit naff and I suspect that they will never shed that; but surely that should make producers want to put on the best show possible and quash the cliché? This season I’ve seen productions that go beyond what anyone would expect of them, but sadly, I’ve seen a few that have made such basic errors and had so little care taken over them that it’s no wonder weeks are being shorn of their runs. And the worst thing is that audiences don’t seem to care.
I do care however and here’s my critical run down of what I’ve seen this year. I hope you’re ready!
MOTHER GOOSE, Hackney Empire
Other theatres claim to be the home of London pantomime; but nowhere really stands uo compared to the Hackney Empire. Every year the Empire presents a show that feels home grown and feels like it has not just its local community, but the whole of London at its heart. This year saw the return of Sharon D. Clarke and Clive Rowe to a production they last did a few years ago. They first time round was my first Hackney panto and I loved it. This time round it was one of the shows I HAD to see and I was so confident I took some other Magic Beans with me. Clive Rowe is an impeccable dame. He gets the broad comedy, but he acts the role like I have never seen anyone else do so before. He can get an audience to be as loud as you can imagine; but at the moment where he realised his mistake in trading Priscilla the entire auditorium was silent and his performance was subtle and tender. This year, though, I felt the production values really looked tired (beyond the normal charm of an Empire panto) and there were quite a few mis-placed comedy routines. A whole costume about the Scottish referendum already seemed out of date, for instance, and I will never understand where the humour is in a plate smashing scene. If I’m honest and I’m putting myself out on a limb here: I was a bit disappointed by this production; but it is very easy to see why so many people swear by the Hackney panto. That said, the opening as Sharon D. Clarke is revealed, through a gauze, on a swing singing I’m Every Woman remains one of the most magical openings of a panto I’ve ever seen!
SLEEPING BEAUTY, Churchill Theatre Bromley
This was THE panto for me this Christmas. One of my favourite subjects and a really classic cast: Bobby Crush, Sonia, Bruce Montagu, Zoe Birkett and someone off Corrie. This really was the definition of an all-star cast; but the show? Wow: jokes and cultural references straight out of the dark ages; sets that didn’t match (and had been re-touched, or not hung properly etc, etc.) and a lack of energy on press night that didn’t bode well for the next five weeks. There were some moments of genuine magic and the individual performers did their best to salvage a pretty dire situation. What upset me most was that it was in Bromley. The Churchill used to be a significant panto venue that attracted high calibre stars. If this show had been in Nowhere-on-Sea you might have forgiven it, but not on one of the UK’s major stages. Yet, as I was leaving the theatre, audiences were raving about it. Why would a producer try any harder if audiences don’t require a show to be any better than what they saw in Bromley?
ALADDIN, Connaught Theatre Worthing
I had friends in this one: Kieran and Sarah (who I’d worked with on the 2013 Haven tours) and the show starred Jon Lee (from S Club 7, who I’ve had a thing for since S Club 7 were a thing), so this one was an absolute no brainer for me. I’ve enjoyed a lot of PHA productions in the past too and I’ve never been to the Connaught, so I was dead excited! Having worked with Jamie Wilson, I’m a big advocate for a live band and there was three in the pit here; but let me tell you: I have never seen less enthusiastic musicians. Considering they were on display to the audience I would have expected a little bit more life from them and consequently their music fell flat. This was really the first time I’ve ever wanted to leave a show at the overture. Which I announced to my companions! The show actually wasn’t that bad. It looked good, the script was a bit random with people coming on stage just to say one word and the heart had clearly gone out of it; but as a panto it worked. Kieran and Sarah stole the show (which, technically, they shouldn’t have been able to surrounded, as they were, by experienced panto performers playing much bigger characters). They stole it because they performed with the right energy: they were larger than life, engaging and were having fun, but taking it seriously at the same time. I was really impressed with them and I hope that next year they get to work with people who care more about the production they are in.
PETER PAN, Orchard Theatre Dartford
Ok, things are going to improve soon, I promise; but for now I’m just going to have to go on sounding like a grumpy bastard. The Orchard in Dartford is no small deal as a theatre. It always has nice casting for the panto and has good programming throughout the year. It is also VERY expensive considering its location and demographic (the very back row for Jamie and myself was £28 each), yet it’s always full when I go. Therefore, I frankly find it offensive to its audience that the last two shows I’ve seen there have had no live music. If audiences are paying top whack to see a show they deserve the full experience. In Gravesend our top ticket price was £17.50, with a five piece band and three good headliners. Children deserve to see musicians in the pit and performers deserve to have them there too. The show was quite spectacular to look at and a lot of the cast were enjoyable to watch; but the consistent lack of a band at this venue is a real issue for me, especially when you can’t see what the money they’ve saved is going towards.
ROBIN HOOD AND THE BABES IN THE WOOD, Grove Theatre Dunstable
My mood is about to improve. I don’t want you to think it’s because I’m going to talk about a Magic Beans pantomime and therefore I have a natural nepotism. We saw a schools performance and not everything was perfect. At times the stage felt quite empty and not all the comedy reached the heights it could have; but, conversely, the end of Act One was so magical that I cried! I think if we’d seen a public performance the comedy would have worked better (it always does, especially from a dame’s perspective); but I was so impressed by the show as a whole. You really got the sense of a cast working together and towards the same goal. It was great to watch so many people that I’ve worked with: Anna Kumble, Alan Fletcher, Andy Abraham, Steve Hewlett and Peter Brad-Leigh; they all looked like they were having fun and shared a very similar energy. There were actually a number of things that made me jealous! Peter’s first entrance (he was Nurse Nellie) was a flying one and I am desperate to do that! Also, I hated watching them all doing the Blues Brothers medley without me! I’m sure I mentioned last year that I’ve never been happier than doing that medley on stage in Sevenoaks – so it was quite hard to watch. What made me cry, however, was Anna singing Children Will Listen whilst floating above the action with an effortless grace. A lot of people could do with watching Anna on stage as a fairy: how she holds herself, her wand (VERY important – don’t get me started!) and maintains the integrity of the character and story whilst not dropping the ball on the duplicity of being an actress in a panto.
CINDERELLA, Stag Theatre Sevenoaks
This was really weird for me, going to a venue that I’ve been performing at for the last five years. Thankfully the show was great, it worked on just about every level and the audience loved it. The Stag is also a wonderful venue for panto. Such a large stage means a large scale production; yet the auditorium is small. It means you’re sat so close that the size of the show is eye-popping and the set they had for Cinderella was particularly attractive. It was great to see Jasette Amos and Lucy Reed genuinely out-do themselves and give better performances than I’ve ever seen. However, the real coup here was the casting of Leslie Grantham and Brian Capron as the Ugly Sisters. Brian, especially, took to it like a natural, but even Leslie seemed to be having much more fun than I would have expected him to. I could really rave about this: Ben Irish and Michael Burgen as Prince and Dandini were the funniest pairing I’ve seen and Ryan Maloney (Toadfish from Neighbours) was an energetic and physical clown as Buttons. If you’re going to replace Ant Payne’s Silly Billy with anyone it may as well be Ryan. I’m sure that audiences will have missed Ant, but I don’t think they will have felt too swindled! The only downfall for me with the performance I saw was that it was getting a bit ‘in-jokey’ for my taste. Of course, this may have been a bit exacerbated by the fact that the Gravesend and Dunstable casts were watching – it’s an easy trap to fall into!
Right, I’m going to pause here before I start sounding too miserable! I wouldn’t normally talk about productions in this way. I think it’s really important to promote a positive impression of pantomime; but it turns out that some producers don’t share this sense of responsibility and that makes me cross! Pantomime is a commercial product and the end result (even for actors) has to be a decent profit – but I don’t see why the people who suffer should be the audiences who are spending their hard earned money on your show. Over and out!