There has been so much publicity emanating from Mark Ravenhill and the Barbican about their pantomime not being shocking or frightening that it comes as a surprise to find such a tame and tepid production at the end of all their “back to panto basics” protestations.
Ravenhill and director Edward Hall have at least recognised the correct story outline of Dick, the Gloucestershire lad, finding fame and fortune as Lord Mayor of London, and marrying the Alderman’s daughter, after Tommy his cat has purged Morocco of its rat epidemic. They also revert to the principal boy principle, with Summer Strallen – the best Maisie ever in The Boy Friend this year - slapping her thighs and stalking about the stage with a marvellous, defiant aplomb. And Derek Elroy’s Tommy is a very cool cat indeed, as well versed in martial arts as he is in sympathy-grabbing.
They are falsely accused of robbing Alderman Fitzwarren – the money is planted in Dick’s trademark bundle – but the happy outcome is projected in a dream sequence even before everyone boards the Saucy Sal to China and the en route shipwreck in North Africa. All this, and one or two chorus set pieces at the Cheapside docks, is fairly well done.
But pantomime is most enjoyable through the personality of its performers, the quality of the contact with the audience. Roger Lloyd Pack is a superb, lugubrious character actor. But as Sarah the Cook he is a disaster. Pantomime dames are a speciality beyond his range and experience. He has all the costumes but none of that essential, abrasive rapport with an audience. His dance of the seven veils needs an eighth big one drawn over it.
The Totally Lazy Jack of Danny Worters is a hunched introvert in baggy tights, and Caroline Sheen’s Alice Fitzwarren eschews pouting prettiness in favour of a waist-length fright wig that makes her look like Colleen Dewhurst as an over-age Medea, a move that totally scuppers the same sex frisson of Dick’s infatuation with her. At least Sam Kelly is a chipper, goggle-eyed Alderman (doubling as his own long lost brother, the Sultan), and Toby Sedgwick an athletically rubber-limbed ship’s mate in a commedia dell’arte comical conk.
We have a fairly good “slosh” scene with Sarah and Jack being doused from the sea and covered in kitchen ingredients while the ship lurches; an average “black theatre” underwater aquarium; and a shower of sweeties (Health and Safety might like to know that these are unwrapped, but I have survived scoffing one) that has no logical place in the story.
The Fairy Bowbells (Debbie Chazen) flies good naturedly about, while her opposite number in evil, King Rat, is given a spinal nastiness by Nickolas Grace that goes way beyond the flimsiness of the script. Ravenhill’s feeble, off-and-on rhyming makes a Victorian journeyman like H J Byron sound like Alexander Pope.
The songs – written by a ragbag roster of names including George Stiles and Anthony Drewe, Howard Goodall and Charles Hart, Sarah Travis and Issy von Randwyck, and Kit Hesketh-Harvey – are suitably anodyne in a jolly sort of way, and the fresh and colourful designs are the work of the film, fashion and dance designer Michael Howells.
- Michael Coveney