THE BIGGEST WILDEST HAPPIEST SHOW
Never have there been so many Cratchits: 28 of them, all singing their heads off “Who needs the limelight? Who owns the moonlight? We’ve got the life and soul – Life for the living, soul for the giving!”. The stage is crowded: a vast composed picture, every cast member from seven to sixty a pixel in it, a voice.
Among them several are energetically signing, as they have throughout the riotous play. I think I now know the BSL signs for “Ho Ho Ho” , “Here’s your P45”, and “Resistance is futile”. The sign-language moves melt effortlessly into the mass choreography. The cast numbers 800, on any one night 168. At the curtain call I had never seen so many people on one stage, ever. It overwhelms.
For this is Chickenshed, the famous theatre group (and teaching campus for BTec performance diplomas) which excludes nobody willing to join and perform. Physical and mental disabilities or illness are no bar; deeply troubled and excluded children too have their lives changed, many staying for years. Among the adults performing are those who teach the courses. Music, lighting and sets are of professional standard and often grander than most commercial children’s theatre: the entrance of the Snow Queen and the frozen victims trapped above is spectacular).
All of which might make you expect to approve, to admire, to donate to a good cause. But for this 40th anniversary performance, a reprise of one of their classic devised stories, the first thing to do is just applaud. It is seriously good fun: witty, artful, thoughtful and performed with headlong glee. The story is a mischievous seasonal mashup: a family of children who on Christmas Eve find that Santa has delivered the wrong sack, and that it falls to them to deliver presents to the Ugly Sisters, Scrooge, and the Snow Queen. So they ‘imagine‘ their sofa into a sleigh, recruit a couple of divinely silly reindeer (Billy Ashworth and Robin Shillinglaw) and head off to Pantoland, 1842 London, and the frightening Snow Queen’s domain.
There are some fine jokes in Pantoland, as the Ugly Sisters dispatch casts all over the country. A minute girl plays the big bad wolf with a terrifying roar, a disillusioned Buttons sneers “Hello Buttons – not ‘zackly Shakespeare, is it?” and a depressed Aladdin in specs reveals that he has been replaced by David Hassellhoff, or possibly Jedward. Inevitably the Sisters end up dragged to Dickens’ London and Scrooge to the Snow Kingdom, where in one of the most dramatic emotional moments he saves a small child (Serena Ehanire) from going over to the dark side.
There are solos, and some powerful leads (Michael Offei a particularly funny ugly sister) but it’s all about the ensemble: the three rotas of sleigh kids, snowpeople, panto stars and Londoners who take turn throughout the many matinees and evenings, crowding and dancing and singing and ultimately forming a picture far bigger than any one of them. Or us.
box office 0208 292 9222 chickenshed.org.uk to 11 Jan
rating: Who’s competing? Not Chickenshed people. So here’s one big happy Christmouse for them