Review: Sinbad the Sailor (Theatre Royal Stratford East)
Kerry Michael directs Stratford East's annual pantomime
If you want a symbol of the dislocation of modern Britain from its own culture, you need look no further than the Theatre Royal Stratford East, a grand old building beached between two shopping centres, one a spanking new temple to consumerism, the other an echoing vault now used by skateboarders.
The aim of Sinbad the Sailor, the annual pantomime, is explicitly to lure children to the theatre, to give them a view of the world that doesn't completely rely on the spending of money or the idle filling of time. Yet the vehicle of old-style panto seems so removed from the modern child that it's hard to imagine it will ever succeed.
My worst fears were confirmed when two hapless sailors tried to get a sing along of "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor" going before curtain up, with more enthusiasm than success and then we were whisked off to the court of a powerful Sultan where a few bad jokes fall flat as pancakes and we meet Sinbad the sailor and his braver sister Sinbadda, and their friend a monkey. Sweets thrown to the audience provided the main adrenalin rush and my heart sank to my boots.
But I did notice the care that director Kerry Michael and designers Harriet Barsby and Jenny Tiramini had lavished on every single detail; the little cartoon introductions to Sinbad sailing on the sea, the shadow puppets that tell the stories of his adventures, the way that the cast rush around the stage in brightly coloured paper boats before being beached on a desert island, where giant monkey puppets greeted them in a dance.
And I noticed too the warmth of Johnny Amobi's dame (a competent Nurse in search of a man) and the gentle humour of Michael Bertenshaw's wheezy baddie Prince Naw-Ze Uzz, both talking to the viewers as equals. By the time Rina Fatania's dopey, depressed genie had struggled out of her bottle, and spread her misery across the stage, I was beginning to be charmed. More importantly, so were the children.
After the interval, things flew. It still needs a better script (children's TV is so sharp and inventive, why not panto?) but it displays real invention in a scene set inside the Merrier bottle where multiple genies turn up for a soul-singing, conscious-raising session; the songs are great and powerfully performed (particularly by the big-voiced Amobi) and a routine which brought two men out of the audience as Nurse's potential suitors managed to be affectionate rather than embarrassing.
By the close, the audience are singing along and I am smiling broadly, full of a spirit of something like good cheer. The fourth star is generous, but this is a generous theatre that has presented a pantomime with a good heart and considerable style. I hope it succeeds in its aim, and that children will return wanting more. And not just at Christmas.
Sinbad the Sailor runs at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 21 January 2017.