DramaFestive 21/22LondonPantomimeReview

The Queen of Hearts – Greenwich Theatre, London

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

Writer and Director: Andrew Pollard

The poem about the Queen of Hearts, who made some tarts that the Knave promptly stole, dates back as far as 1782 – although these days, we know of it mostly through its reuse as a subplot in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Its role as the basis for pantomime dates back almost as long as the poem, although it fell into disuse in the early 20th century as pantoland settled on the core fairytale stories. Its revival here gives writer/director Andrew Pollard the opportunity to present some of the usual panto tomfooleries, within a storyline whose originality helps keep the whole audience engaged.

Pollard, Greenwich’s resident Dame for the last fifteen years, dons a variety of playing card-themed outfits for his titular role as the Queen, a benevolent ruler whose land is one of kindness, thanks to her magic jam tarts.

But here it is not the Knave of Hearts – a nickname for her sweet-natured son Jack, played by the delightfully ebullient Gibsa Bah – but the King of the nearby Kingdom of Clubs who has his eyes on the Queen’s pastries and her secret recipe for them. Anthony Spargo is another Greenwich stalwart, and the years of camaraderie between the two principals pays off – pardon the pun – in spades.

Cleo Pettit’s set, a veritable house of cards, provides a deceptively static backdrop. With a three-piece band housed on stage (with musical director Steve Marwick, another Greenwich panto regular, in the heart of the action) there is little scope for scenery changes. Individual scenes, therefore, come across as a collection of narratively linked variety pieces, from a delightful “Who’s on First”-style Christmas present mix-up to some more traditional slapstick elements. Such a structure is something that characterises many other pantos, of course. But while those others might hide it better than here, they rarely contain this much fun.

Bah’s boundless, childlike energy as Jack is an effective counterpoint to Pollard and Spargo’s more freewheeling, slightly more adult (but never grown-up) humour. He also sparks well off both Myla Carmen’s Princess of Diamonds, with whom his character has the inevitable unrequited love, and Emma Jay Thomas as the Princess’s suitor, the Prince of Spades.

While having just a cast of five in the panto is a challenge, and gives the script several opportunities for digs at Thomas’s double-casting as Fairy Fair Deal, the result is a boutique joy. In the second act, the set reveals some hidden secrets, as the Queen and her three young charges embark on a daring rescue mission to wrest back the tart recipe, allowing for some clever physical comedy and sight gags.

It is inevitable that a panto becomes laden with pop culture references, although many of those in Pollard’s script are more likely to register with any grandparents escorting their children. There’s not much brand recognition for the theme from Minder, or Bruce Forsyth’s game show Play Your Cards Right, within the CBeebies crowd, after all.

Musically, though, the production pulls from a much wider history of pop classics, from modern hits by Dua Lipa and BTS to classic hits from Queen and Burt Bacharach. There’s even a full-cast rendition of O Fortuna from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana – suggesting that more pantos could do with the occasional burst of Latin harmonies.

Given the preponderance of card themed sets, props and costumes, clubs, diamonds, spades and especially hearts dominate proceedings. But another type of heart is suffused throughout The Queen of Hearts – like the tarts the Queen makes, this is a panto made with love.

Continues until 2 January 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

A panto full of heart

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