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Rumpelstiltskin at the Park Theatre – review

John Savournin's production runs until 14 January

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Philip Lee in Rumpelstiltskin
© Bill Knight

Charles Court Opera's annual "Boutique Pantomime" is usually one of the highlights of the theatrical festive season in the capital. Manic and original, they've proved a winning combination of anarchic, bonkers humour, inventive stage business, imaginative design on a budget, and a source of naughty delight. They also offer the unique opportunity to hear operatically trained voices up close as they tackle familiar, albeit heavily re-written, pop and rock songs. Past highlights have included Matthew Kellett's romantically spurned Buttons as a giant teddy bear singing Radiohead's "Creep" as he mourns the loss of his Cinderella, or artistic director John Savournin's melancholic panto dame Snow White duetting with a cardboard cutout of her late husband Barry (!) on an unexpected version of "You're The First, The Last, My Everything". I guess anybody can have an off-year though, and this confection for Christmas 2022 is a considerable disappointment.

For starters, despite a certain amount of obligatory audience participation, Rumpelstiltskin doesn't feel like a real pantomime at all, despite being described as such in a programme note by the usually inspired script writer and director Savournin, whose onstage presence, along with that of the aforementioned Kellett, is sorely missed here. In fact it's a sub par, fairytale-derived small scale musical in which a surprising number of jokes fail to land even in the tiny space of the Park's auditorium, with a score of newly created pop, and pop-adjacent, songs.

The pre-recorded soundtrack to these is piped in on a tinny system that manages to sound underpowered while still obscuring the vast majority of the lyrics. The singing is live though, and pretty good, even if three of the four voices are more musical theatre than the operatic grandeur that is usually Charles Court's USP.

Those three voices belong to an appealing trio (Emily Cairns, Tamoy Phipps and Lucy Whitney) who work their socks off as a mini-ensemble who play everything in the show except the title role. Their impressive energy feels wasted on material that ultimately just isn't hilarious, although Phipps is fun as Daisy The Cow, squirting milk from her udders all over the front row.

Charles Court regular Philip Lee is similarly enthusiastic as the goblin himself and has a tremendously versatile voice and abundant athleticism. He's saddled though with a bunch of unfortunate jokes about Rumpelstiltskin's sexuality that are so crass and obvious that only somebody with the deadpan wit and comic hauteur of Julian Clary could really get away with.

As if acutely aware of the shortcomings of the piece, sound designer David Eaton, who is also responsible for the score, follows literally every joke with a "comedy" aural effect that is initially bewildering but then becomes positively irritating when it is frequently so hard to hear what the cast have actually just said. To be fair, Eaton shows dexterity in being able to create tunes in a wide variety of genres, and musically the evening ends on a high note with an uplifting company number, "Let Your Story Be Told", about the validity of everyone's personal arc.

The plot of the show borrows from, amongst others, Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington and Snow White, and Alex Berry's rather lovely set acknowledges the influence of all these stories with it's antique-looking books strewn over a ramshackle array of shelves, augmented by an Aladdin's cave (literally) of hanging light bulbs and unexpected doors. It's just a shame that the piece as a whole feels so simultaneously over-stuffed yet undernourished, despite the tireless clowning efforts of the small cast. It's not awful, it's just uninspired. To quote Sondheim's "Send In The Clowns": "well, maybe next year".