Writer: Toby Hulse
Director: Joel Scott
Reviewer: Harry Stern
Panto is a peculiarly British institution. Debunking our institutions is something that we British do particularly well. So the debunking of Panto should be something at which we excel. Sad to say that, despite several genuinely funny moments, there is a marked inconsistency about this festive offering at the usually excellent Southwark Playhouse. The overall result is disappointing, neither Panto nor pastiche.
The difficulty lies in the vacuum that is created by the deconstruction of all that is so familiar and beloved of the pantomime form itself. What is offered to fill the void needs to be superbly witty and markedly skillful for the lack not to be regretted. Instead, what we get veers wildly from student-like physical japes with a plethora of fart noises and jokes to crass comedy peppered with occasional moments of real humour. But these latter simply aren’t enough to rescue the piece as the frenetic action careers all over the place, with energy being no substitute for wit.
In the beginning, in fact for the whole if the first half, we are offered the pantomime company Box of Delights which is understaffed, under prepared and under strain. The members of the company attempt to resuscitate a disastrous production from a near impossible set of pre-performance circumstances. The set is unfinished. The cast is incomplete. There are no juvenile dancers. The Stage Manager has been dragooned into playing all the rôles that cannot be undertaken by the three remaining members of the cast. All of this is exacerbated by the additional pressure of the imminent visit of the Panto Inspector. A series of madcap solutions ensue as the company prepares. The best of these is probably a well-executed slosh scene in which hats are filled with gunky green liquid that finds its inevitable way out of its receptacles and onto the heads of the protagonists. The cast sing a couple of songs. The audience is primed to respond to (too many) prompt lines and all is made as ready as possible for the crucial, inspected performance in the second half.
Bizarrely, given what had gone before, the second half follows the traditional, albeit truncated, narrative of Jack and the Beanstalk. Played with exuberance and panache one could almost believe that the issues of the first half have melted away as the performance continues, problem free for a little bit. The budget has been spent in this half of the show with Rebecca Brower’s trad. panto set being a pleasing replacement for the fringe, rag-tag nothingness of the first half. There is even a rather extravagant Daisy the Cow complete with winning smile and battable eyelids. But this respite is temporary as the performance is unsustainable and falls apart in the presence of the Panto Inspector. The piece’s denouement is nothing more than bizarre before the Dame’s light-up walk-down frock steals the show.
The performance of the four actors Michael Bryher, Bea Holland, Matt Prendergast and Ian Summers are up-tempo and sure-footed. Their commitment to Toby Hulse’s material is total and they sing nicely. They are aided and abetted by a community cast that revels under the title of the Mexican Jumping Beans who double as dancers and front of house ushers.
It is a very good-natured evening that tickles the audience. They join in with gusto and generally have fun. There is nothing in it to offend; yet the deconstruction of the form turns the experience into something that reinforces a view that there is an essential triviality about pantomime. A very adult perspective that demeans the magical experience that is often a child’s first contact with live performance.