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Red Riding Hood at Theatre Royal Stratford East – review

The panto runs until 31 December

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Phil Nichol (Granny) in Red Riding Hood
© The Other Richard

I think I am getting soft. Towards the end of this pantomime, the Dame – Red Riding Hood's granny – played gloriously in PVC and cup-cake sparkle by Phil Nichol, sings: "We've had a flipppin' awful year/Maybe better times are here" and a tear sprang to my eye.

It wasn't so much that the song was particularly good, or that this offering by Carl Webb and Robert Hyman is even the best panto you are likely to see. But what made me so emotional was the sheer energy and effort that the entire cast were investing in everyone having a good time – and the fact that the children in the audience were leaning forward so intently and seemed, as far as it is possible to tell, to be responding.

If you wanted an image of the courage of British theatre in a really flippin' awful year, then it would be that. Performers trying their hardest to help audiences enjoy themselves. Battling through, against the odds. Never has panto seemed more precious.

In general, there is a lot to like about this show, directed by Robert Shaw Cameron and designed with bright comic book flats as scenery by Jean Chan, who also provides costumes that are a winning mixture of contemporary and traditional. It takes the story of Little Red Riding Hood, sets it in the fairy tale village of Stratford on the Down, and winds it into a parable about climate change.

The wild wood and the Seasons tree are in trouble, the sun never stops shining and animals are losing their natural habitat. They can only be saved by Red (a lively and strong voiced Elise Zavou) plugging the natural fibres of sparkly anorak hood into the wood-wide web, with the help of the audience.

It takes quite a long time to get to the point where this happens, and the story is stretched almost beyond endurance by its well-meaningness, but there are many incidental pleasures en route. Not least of these is another tangent – Kirsty Whelan's narcissistic mum who is so busy trying to be an influencer (she even takes a photograph of herself just as the Wolf is about to eat her) that she neglects her daughter.

There's also Wolfie (wide-eyed Luke Latchman) a wannabe rockstar, who is hiding a terrible secret from his father, Wolf. Raphael Bushay is terrific as the hungry lupine on the prowl, demolishing his prey with a debonair smirk, and a soundtrack (provided by Helen Skiera) of grotesque munching noises.

Amidst the ecological twists and a few quite good jokes about London – Wolf goes to live in Wolfhamstow, Red's best friend is Bow Peep – we also get the traditional ingredients of pantomime: a baking routine that is perhaps a bit cautious, a chase, a love song for a principal boy (Jodie Jacobs' thigh-slapping huntsman Woody) and a sing along.

It's muddled at points, and it completely wastes a set up involving Fairy Berry's baking competition, but it never seemed to lose its audience, and both children and parents reacted with relish to the open-hearted effort set in front of them. I recognise my tears weren't quite the response it intended to provoke, but they were a sign that I had a really good time.