The producers of pantos sometimes seem uncertain as to the audience they want to attract. While the genre is intended for youngsters the casting of telly stars and the use of the occasional nudge-nudge joke appeal to their parents.
At the Oldham Coliseum co-writers Fine Time Fontayne (who also performs as the panto Dame) and Kevin Shaw (who directs) resolve this confused situation with elegant simplicity. The Coliseum offers a family friendly version of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk' at daytime weekday performances and a more grown up show at evening weekends. The writers take the approach that pantomimes are compiled rather than written and, as well as the title character, manage to squeeze in elements of the Jack and Jill and Simple Simon tales.
The production is unapologetically parochial. The cast use northern accents and local place names are constantly dropped (the gloomy giant's lair is said to resemble Rochdale). The panto is set in the mythical town of Oldham where Fairy Drought (Tamsin Dowsett) has caused a water shortage and people mysteriously keep vanishing (but no-one likes to mention it). Aspiring superhero Jack (Justine Elizabeth Bailey) has a magical vision advising it is his destiny to save the day.
Director Kevin Shaw follows an established panto formula by having adaptations of current pop hits played live by a trio. But his main influences are traditional music hall/variety acts and classic comedies. Fontayne, along with Leigh Symonds and Richard J Fletcher, performs a sidesplitting decorating routine that wouldn't be out of place in a Laurel and Hardy short. It is an approach that requires, and gets, selfless commitment from the cast who perform pratfalls and suffer indignities with straight-faced nonchalance.
The ensemble cast win strong support from audience who bellow out warnings when anyone attempts to open a strong box or sneak up on the heroes. A troupe of half a dozen young dancers provides spirited backing. Although their dancing can't be faulted the classically inspired choreography (all high kicks and leaps) by Beverley Edmonds seems restrained when performed to pop hits.
The set design by Celia Perkins is in the exaggerated style of the ‘Horrible History' graphics. The bright costumes and creature designs are exceptional. Daisy the dancing cow is an audience favourite performed by Hannah Wolfe and Zoei Cozens who also offer a pair of nicely scary crows. The giant is a lumbering marvel to behold and Fontayne shamelessly hogs the best (which is to say most bizarre) costumes including those based on airplanes and milkshakes.
A panto problem the Coliseum hasn't been able to resolve is that the show over-stays its welcome. There are so many almost-endings that by the time the real one comes along the response is muted. But for many of the young audience this will be their first experience of theatre and is certainly of a quality to make them want more.
- Dave Cunningham