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The Travelling Pantomime – New Earswick Folk Hall

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Writer: Paul Hendy

Director: Juliet Forster

Compared to the York pantomimes of the Berwick Kaler era – all video inserts, crazy costumes and flying Wagon Wheels – The Travelling Pantomime, a mere 80 minutes and only five on stage, might appear unambitious, but in its own way it’s as ambitious as it is entertaining. York Theatre Royal set itself the formidable task of performing in all 21 wards of the city and at the latest count was only three or four short, with possibly more venues to be added.

The second sign of vaulting ambition is rather more tongue-in-cheek. The audience has a choice of three pantos: indeed, the cast members are only billed as The Comic, The Dame and so on. So there we were, voting for Dick Whittington, Jack and the Beanstalk or Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – except wait a moment, what about the Rule of Six? Cue this year’s favourite panto joke: “We’ve had to cut one of the dwarves – he’s not Happy!”

At New Earswick Jack beat Dick in the vote-off, but there’s a fair chance that much of the text serves for both pantomimes. The villain Fleshcreep so hates pantomimes that he wants to seize Dame Dolly’s Panto Emporium which stocks everything from Aladdin’s lamp to the mysterious liquid that contains the essence of pantomime. Just as we think the beanstalk’s got left out, Fleshcreep unleashes the giant “Pundemic”, silly son Josh sells his mother’s stock for a bag of gold, the gold turns out to be beans and a splendid beanstalk shoots up instantly.

The Folk Hall is one of the more theatrical venues on the tour, with a full stage – smallish, but with wings and proscenium arch – and a socially distanced audience of 100. Juliet Forster’s production has to be adaptable and light on its feet to fit equally well into a 30-seater hall with no stage. Robin Simpson’s Dame gets a rather fine outfit for the final scene, but generally any elaborate effects or costume changes are not on. Instead we have energy, warmth and amiability from the start.

Above all Paul Hendy’s script and Forster’s direction provide a clever response to the changed circumstances. The virus is the subject of a few good gags: a slow burner is described as “a coronavirus joke – you have to wait two weeks before you know if you’ve got it.” An intended embrace turns into an elbow bump. The slop scenes and custard pies (there is one small custard pie) are replaced by an ingenious and very funny piece of verbal slapstick based on magazine titles. After one early and rather informal bout of “Oh, no, he’s not!”, the traditional audience responses turn into stamps, claps and high fives which work remarkably well, though sadly there’s no equivalent to “He’s behind you!”

It’s good to find a bedrock of truth beneath the fantasy. Faye Campbell’s feisty Jack breaks the traditional Principal Boy mould by indignantly claiming more than once that people don’t think (s)he can do things “because I’m a girl”. Reuben Johnson’s looming Fleshcreep, with eccentric movement and “stereotypical accent” (his phrase), delivers an amusing parody of the objections to panto.

Robin Simpson’s Dame is a master of verbal twists and turns and “Take it or leave it” asides and ad libs. Together with Josh Benson’s knowingly doltish and winningly acrobatic Josh he keeps the audience on-side without the armoury of effects of normal years. And then, of course, there has to be a Fairy, Anna Soden, disarmingly surprised at her own rapping ability and providing a touch of onstage guitar and trumpet to go with the pre-recorded music.

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