Final show of the year, third panto of the year and second panto that we’ve seen at Richmond. We came back hot on the success of last year’s Peter Pan, with a deliciously villainous Robert Lindsay and the dancing sprite that is Harry Francis. And it’s a beautiful theatre with a lovely vibe, so why wouldn’t we return?
This year they treated us to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was enjoyable, but it wasn’t a classic by any means. Whilst some aspects were excellent, others didn’t work for me at all. For example, you know that local rivalry panto theme, where the script includes the occasional reference to local towns so that they can take the mickey out of them? They did it to death. And in Richmond that comes across as rather snobby; all the local references (and there genuinely must have been more than a dozen – tedious when you’re not local) implied that those other places rated somewhere between grotty and criminal underworld, whereas Richmond is sweetly genteel. Provoked my inner socialist and got on my nerves, if I’m honest.
When we saw that this year Jo Brand would be playing the Wicked Queen we instantly jumped at the chance; surely, that’s a casting made in heaven? Surprisingly, and disappointingly, it isn’t. Whilst I am a huge fan of Ms Brand in her TV appearances, I was quite shocked at how out of place she seemed to be on a stage. Don’t get me wrong; she looked perfect, deployed that contemptuous stare and voice to full effect, and got a load of laughs in the process. But, for a comedy legend, I felt that her timing was off; and she had a tendency to recite her lines rather than act them. Her performance didn’t flow; it was like a collection of individual modules where she had a line here and a bit of business there and they were all sequenced so that she could go from one to the other, but you could see the break in concentration and commitment between each section. Her eyes said: “I’ve done that line, so now I have to stand over here and wait for the next bit”. Maybe further back in the theatre that might not have been so noticeable; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I were centre of the second row and it looked very obvious to us. I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced.
Fortunately, we were also in the company of Jon Clegg as Muddles who kept the whole show going at a cracking pace. His interaction with the audience and, particularly, the kids, works incredibly well; he managed to make the “one smart feller he felt smart” song with the kids on stage at the end genuinely funny. And, of course, he is a terrific impressionist. However – and this was a fascinating general observation – all the Brexit/Boris Johnson jokes and impersonations fell flat as a pancake. I can only assume that we’ve all had far too much politics for one year, and there’s absolutely nothing funny to laugh about in the situation the country has got itself. This audience, at least, had come to the Richmond Theatre to escape the woes of Whitehall, not to be reminded of them.
Jason Sutton gave it his all as Nurse Nancy, including some delightful corpsing during the scene where Muddles had to convey the increasingly difficult tongue-twisters between Nancy and the Prince. His (her) pestering of the poor chap in the front row as New Boyfriend Material worked very well – and he took it in good spirit too. James Darch cut a suave figure as Prince Harry of Hampton, and his singing and dancing with Mia Starbuck’s Snow White was probably the best thing about this panto – as indeed were the girls and boys of Babette Langford’s Young Set, who gave a stupendously good performance.
There are two ways you can play the dwarfs; either with seven short gentlemen as the title suggests, or with seven full sized actors hobbling around on their knees. This production went for the latter option. I can never decide which side of the divide I fall on with this argument. Ideally, the roles should go to the people most suited to the job, depending on acting/singing/etc ability. But I also can’t help but feel that when a production doesn’t use actors of restricted growth, that it deprives them of one of their best chances of a good job in the entire year. Our Magnificent Seven, as the programme likes to call them, were full of spark and character, in excellent voice and probably the campest portrayal of the seven that I’ve ever seen; and I’m still trying to decide if that works or not. I have to say the kids in the audience didn’t give them the huge reception that in my experience normally greets the dwarfs – maybe they were disappointed at the stage pretence. You can’t fool kids at the panto.
On the whole, this show didn’t quite hit the target – certainly nothing like the bullseye that was last year’s. In its favour, it got the level of adult humour versus appropriate for kids spot on, which neither of the other two we’d seen this December achieved (and let’s face it, Goldilocks didn’t even try). But it lacked a touch of magic, a sense of sincerity perhaps, that could have turned a good panto into a great one.
Production photos by Craig Sugden