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Michael Coveney: Santa takes a break between my two cat women

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I was chatting to Father Christmas on the South Bank last night and he was lamenting the lack of proper pantomime at the National Theatre, the ugly graffiti on the concrete walls, the weather, the food at Claridge's, even the shoddiness of some of the other seasonal wearers of the fabled red outfit and luxuriant white face hair.

Yes, a right old misery guts Santa turns out to be. But all his gripes and groans were delivered in the cheeriest of manners as he sipped a beer at the bratwurst stall in between charging tourists a couple of quid to take a picture of him.

He claims to be the only Father Christmas who's a fully paid-up Equity member, and goes by the name out of season of Bill Stew, as in "stews and fleshpots" of Shakespearean Southwark and the river, where his family have lived for generations.

I was taking a break between Christmas shows, having caught a raucous matinee of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the New Wimbledon while girding my loins for Meow Meow and her Little Match Girl cabaret in the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

There's even a comedian in Snow White called Jarred Christmas (as opposed to Pickled Herring?) who claims to hail from New Zealand every time he's mistaken for an Aussie. He's the Wicked Queen's henchman, but as Priscilla Presley does all her own dirty work, he has little to do except get his face slapped and tell rotten jokes.

His best gag is about a spillage of onions on a motorway which left dozens of motorists looking for a  hard shoulder to cry on. Not funny? What about the riposte of Lesley Joseph to the pirate king in Robinson Crusoe at the Birmingham Hippodrome? Blackheart cries, "Where are my buccaneers?" To which Lesley replies, "On the side of your buccan-face, and mind your language."

Boom boom indeed. I even tried that one out on the musical director of Snow White, who was in the pub over the road with a couple of band members before the half. He saw me carefully inspecting my programme (I was doing a "spot the difference between a couple of dwarfs" quiz) and asked if I was hoping to have a good time.

I explained how I always live in hope, and that part of the fun of pantomime, and indeed the enjoyment of Christmas, is the looking forward before it's too late. Back in the theatre, I wondered why the MD's face seemed vaguely familiar, and once I'd got the last dwarf difference (only one of them had a wart on his left cheek), I read his credits and realised that he, David Roper, had been one of the Four Poofs and a Piano on the Jonathan Ross television show for a decade or so.     

The chief dwarf is a familiar face, too: Warwick Davis from countless movies, including several of the Harry Potter series, and from last year's fairly funny comedy series Life's Too Short, written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

He's very good on the stage, too, not above cutting himself down to size with all manner of gags. At one point, rallying the troops, he declares, "We're one short," only to be told by Snoozy or Loopy that "We're all short!"

Which reminded me of a story the late Peter Hepple (editor of The Stage and proud Barnet FC supporter) used to tell about a cut-price production of Snow White where the budget only ran to a couple of dwarfs. Every scene in the forest would end with one of them shouting into the wings, "Come along, you five," followed by a blackout.

All seven are in place at Wimbledon, though I gather their contracts are only short-term and they are not receiving a rise for Christmas. I suppose the compensation is spendiing the night in the cottage with Snow White, a place they describe, thanks to Madness, as the House of Fun. So much fun, in fact, that they are all completely shagged out and fast asleep at the start of the second act.

The New Wimbledon is a perfect panto venue, and it was good to see all the front of house and bar staff entering into the panto spirit, with light-up pink fluffy Wicked Queen alice bands. One of them even forced a bag of sweets on me (all paid for, of course) and press officer Stacey Pedder materialised in a cloud of green smoke to proudly show off the posh new Piano bar upstairs, part of the recent refurbishment programme by Ambassador Theatre Group.

Priscilla Presley is fine and feline as the Wicked Queen, not too vacuous and agreeably modest about her, well, rusty stage technique. And she plays down the Elvis connection; she was married to him for six or seven years before he died in 1973, and one of the curious side-effects of her well-documented plastic surgery is to make her resemble the old rocker more and more. 

Another side effect, of course, is to limit the variety of her facial expressions. No such trouble there with the fantastic Meow Meow. Fortified by my German sausage and merry banter with the fat man in the red suit, I purred happily for a couple of hours while the slinky diva stretched her claws and growled out her repertoire of torch songs: this little match girl is some flame-thrower. And she - almost literally - sets the house alight.


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