One of the highlights of all my Christmases is always to go to the panto. I’m a massive fan, and I don’t care who knows it. A year with no panto is a year wasted. This season we’ve got four pantos lined up and the first was our nearest – the QDos production of Cinderella, at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. We missed last year’s R&D panto, and I’m told it was a cracker, so I was really looking forward to seeing this year’s effort.
As I get older, though, I realise I have become something of a pantomime purist. And I slightly bridle against the way some pantos have been restructured to take account of the star performers involved. When I were a lad – cue Hovis music – if you went to the panto you’d have a principal boy (who was a girl) and a Dame (who was a fella). Cinderella in the 60s would have, in the star role, probably Buttons or maybe Prince Charming, then Cinderella herself, and then the Ugly Sisters. The Fairy Godmother would get a look-in on the poster, and Dandini and Baron Hardup would virtually be extras. Not anymore. Today, for example, top of the bill at the Royal and Derngate is Anita Dobson as Baroness Angelique, a role that doesn’t usually exist at all. Supporting are Bernie Clifton as Baron Hardup and Sid Sloane as Dandini. So what used to be two of the least important characters (plus one that never existed) are now the most important characters by virtue of the casting. For me, that has the effect of upending the balance of the production somewhat.
Also – call me a prude – I felt that the usual level of innuendo in panto that entertains the parents and frustrates the kids (because they know it’s funny but they don’t know why) lacked subtlety in this production. Frankly, the Baroness is a randy old thing who chases after anyone in trousers, and at one point is escorted off the stage by a couple of guys dressed as BDSM Joy Boys. The Ugly Sisters come on stage looking for a man out of the audience; in a One Man Two Guvnors moment, they pick on a stooge who is brought up on stage looking all embarrassed and innocent – and they call for him to be stripped! Fortunately they stop when he gets to his vest. Both these incidents would never pass the what would it be like if the genders were reversed test. Yes, I like a dirty snigger at a panto as much as anyone, but to me these two examples of sexualisation just felt wrong.
There are some parts of this production which are very entertaining – more of which later. There are some others that simply didn’t do it for me. Technically, it’s superb, with colourful sets, great costumes, a fab little band, and kudos to Chris Barrett’s lighting design which really stands out. However, although ostensibly it has all the elements you’d look for, it was deficient in the humour department – the script is, sadly, pretty weak – and they made up for it with a general vulgarity. Whilst Martyn James may indeed be an experienced comic/magician/panto performer, I’m afraid his Buttons was so downbeat, so dour, so drab, that I found it very hard to warm to him. It felt underwritten, underplayed and underwhelming. For example, when he asks us to greet him every time he comes on stage, it sounds more like a chore than wanting us to be in his gang. To be fair, in the second act he does three magic tricks that are absolutely superb – more of that, please!
As for the rest of the cast, it was one of those strange experiences where the sum of the parts didn’t quite add up to its whole. Anita Dobson absolutely works her socks off to bring her character to life but the trouble is you could never quite tell whether she was meant to be evil or not; after all, Baroness Angelique doesn’t have a known history, so we had to work it out for ourselves. I concluded that, on the whole, the Baroness was nasty but Ms Dobson is so enthusiastic and positive on stage that you couldn’t always tell. And she does front the best five minutes in the show with a cracking Don’t Stop Me Now together with the Ugly Sisters – energetic, fun-loving and superbly sung – Ms Dobson’s voice is still as terrific as it was when she sang the Eastenders theme. As far as musical moments go, Bernie Clifton carries off a very affectionate and rather moving performance of Love Changes Everything with sincere gusto, but the ostrich It’s Behind You scene didn’t work terribly well as the audience didn’t realise what was happening until the scene was almost over.
Further down the cast list things get brighter. Firstly, the kids from the Mayhew School of Dance are absolutely brilliant! Commanding, confident, cute and charismatic, they did a great job. Dan Partridge, as Prince Charming, has a great stage presence and a fantastic voice, and carries off the snobbish vanity of the part very well. Charlotte Haines’ Cinderella is, quite simply, adorable, with a great voice, a terrific connection to the kids in the audience, and a nice sense of fun. David Dale and Tommy Wallace as Claudia and Tess, the Ugly Sisters, work together extremely well and hit just the right level of almost-believable grotesque. They actually made some very thin material go a very long way! Jacinta Whyte is a charming and kindly Fairy Godmother, and the boys and girls of the ensemble do a neat job of all the singing and dancing. And keeping the whole thing going is the boundless energy and lovable warmth of Sid Sloane as Dandini, on top form throughout. He’s one of those performers where you can’t stop breaking out into a little smile every time he’s onstage.
So, a magical pantomime? Not quite. But things do buck up enormously after the interval. Two stars for the first act and four for the second balances out to a 3 star show overall. It’s on until 29th December – I suspect the kids will enjoy it enough for all the family.
P. S. I forgot the Shetland Ponies! I couldn’t keep in an Ahhhhhhh when they came on!
Production photos by Robert Day