OH YES IT IS! CHIPPY , HOME OF PANTO, STRIKES AGAIN
It is, famously, the local panto for the Cameron family, though the paterfamilias PM himself might want to avoid swivelling heads and accusing stares when Robin, robbing the rich to give to the poor, chucks the last handful of chocolate coins out and sneakily mentions tax credits. The even better joke is when Denis the tax-gatherer opens the Sheriff of Nottingham’s filing cabinet to find , as the late Coalition’s treasurer did, a note saying There Is No Money left.
But never mind that: Ben Crocker’s latest is an absolutely cracking, proper pantomime, directed with gleeful inventiveness by Abigail Anderson in storybook sets (Russell Craig designs) and with fine songs ranging in style from nonny-nonny folk to music-hall. No stupid smut (well, one child-friendly poo-joke), no weary pop songs , no bought-in megastars doing their standard ‘turn’. Just wit, storytelling, enough participation to keep the young happy, and all the traditional elements – songsheet, water-fight, spotted bloomers, damn good female legs in tights – woven in without any exhausting overkill (“Behind you” occurs just once, neatly, as part of a door-joke).
There are four children onstage, and very good too; the villainous Sheriff (Andrew Piper) is all one could ask for, a failed Richard III with personal issues. And its pacy: before you’re through your first ice-cream, ten minutes have seen a song, a chorus of sarcastic pop-up puppet rabbits , Marian in shapely tights, a stave fight (girl-on-girl with Rosanna Lambe’s gender-changed Little Joan) ; plus all necessary back-story and the explosive entrance of Dame Connie Clatterbottom.
Ah, the Dame! Astonishingly, it seems that this is Andrew Pepper’s first outing as Dame, and he is a joy: of the rangy rather than tubby variety, which is handy when forced onto a giant swivelling archery target, but exuding warm flirtatious absurdity and effortless stage presence. He’s pure music-hall in his big numbers, and as schoolmistress saying “No-one needs a machete or a pump action shotgun in class” to the disguised villains he-she has fine authority. And in the magnificent bedtime strip sequence, some fifteen layers down to the bloomers, he must have brought tears of joy to costume designer Emily Stuart: few gentlemen can flick a pantaloon across the stage with more brio.
So yes,we three adults loved it, and so did every child in earshot (they were all in earshot,as well they should be. By the way, Crocker also respects the Robin Hood legends, down to Alan A’Dale’s lost love and the outlaws’ dismay at Robin’s cockiness in contesting for the silver arrow and landing himself in prison. Go for the big rackety starry spectaculars if you must; but this is a fine start to Christmas. And even better, it confines its nod to the season to one tuneless joke version of Jingle Bells, and spares us a premature Santa. Joyful .
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