The Nativity Panto – King’s Head Theatre, London

Book: John Savournin

Music and Lyrics: David Eaton

Director: John Savournin

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Christmas pantomimes, as a rule, tend to be based on a core set of fairy tales – although, of late, stories like Pinocchio or Peter Pan have joined the canon.

The other type of Christmas story, the Nativity play, tends to be restricted to primary schools. Now Charles Court Opera, producers of the King’s Head boutique Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, have taken the story of Mary & Joseph and contorted it into the Pantones tradition.

In John Savournin’s story, Joseph and Mary Christmas are toymakers at the North Pole, aided by an insecure Rudolph (perpetually bullied by his siblings, especially “Olive, the other reindeer” – the best of Savournin’s numerous puns). When Mary becomes miraculously pregnant due to a magic holly bush (the “Holly Spirit”), Mary and Joseph must flee to avoid the attentions of the Herod-like Jack Frost.

What follows is a bonkers ride through many a pantomime trope, from pop songs and Christmas tunes adapted to suit the story to the villainous Jack and his henchman, Snowflake, being greeted with boos and hisses upon every appearance.

As befitting Charles Court Opera’s heritage, much store is placed upon the musical numbers, although the arrangements of one or two numbers fall surprisingly short. Partly this may be due to the small number of voices available – despite the myriad of roles on stage, the cast consist of just four women and one man. Certainly those songs which rely on a solo lead fare better under musical director David Eaton’s arrangements.

The use of the nativity structure to revitalise the pantomime form is both novel and well-crafted by Savournin’s book, in particular allowing the three kings (gangster King Pin, gourmand King Size and innuendo-obsessed King Key) to take on the comedy grotesque roles that traditional panto dames might assume. Matthew Kellett’s King Key grates almost immediately, though, with the sort of underwritten “adult” humour that requires several pints and a teenage boy mentality to endure.

Audience participation is a must in pantoland, of course; and while the traditional call-and-response is fully utilised, the biggest laughs come from an onstage game show element. And by the time the singalong comes, one is left with a feeling of a twist on the pantomime format that is largely, and amusingly, successful.

Runs until 11 January 2020 | Image: Bill Knight

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Panto with a twist

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