The annual round of pantos (and Christmas-themed) shows has begun in earnest, so the rounds of theatre reviewing are even more frantic than usual since most of them are opening in the same fortnight of last and this week. And the let-up on other shows hasn’t happened either: inbetween the pantos last week, we also had the opening of John Kolvenbach’s Love Song, the Royal Court’s Catch (co-authored by five young women dramatists) and Patrick Marber’s version of Moliere, Don Juan in Soho; while this week, there’s two consecutive RSC openings with a trip up to Stratford tomorrow for Merry Wives – the Musical (a kind of RSC panto?) and the opening of the annual London season on Wednesday with Much Ado About Nothing. And wedged inbetween these and the pantos, there are also the folk-tales and adaptations of kids’ books, from the return of the National’s sublime Coram Boy (which I caught again at the Saturday matinee, and did an aftershow talk for with the director and composer for a group from the production’s sponsor, Accenture) to this week’s Young Vic show The Enchanted Pig and a Peter Pan at the King’s Head using the complete Leonard Bernstein score for the first time ever.
I’m trying to be as diligent as possible, but I can’t be everywhere. Still, I managed three pantos last week already, and have two more this week. So far, so good: but then I’ve chosen wisely. The first night critics were out in force, of course, for the opening of the only central London panto this year: the Barbican’s first foray into the field, with the Mark Ravenhill-scripted and Edward Hall-directed version of Dick Whittington and His Cat. To read their reviews, though, they might have been written by one man (or woman): All opened with the surprise that Ravenhill should be commissioned to do it at all. Indeed, can you spot the difference between the opening lines of these two reviews?
“Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Mark Ravenhill was to write the Barbican’s first ever in-house pantomime”.
“Eyebrows were raised when it was announced that Mark Ravenhill was to write the Barbican’s first pantomime.”
Not much difference, is there? The first is Charlie Spencer in the Daily Telegraph; the second, Michael Billington in the Guardian.
Charlie goes on to speculate, “Would Alderman Fitzwarren be presented as a sadistic crack dealer? Would the rats be transformed into a posse of rapacious, venereally infected rent boys? What, above all, would Whittington be doing with his dick?”
In fact, as The Independent’s Rhoda Koenig points out in her opening line, “To answer everyone’s first question about Mark Ravenhill’s version of Dick Whittington – no, there is no anal or oral sex in this version and nothing happens to the cat that will have anyone texting the RSPCA. There has even been some effort to sanitise Ravenhill’s bio – any inquisitive kiddies will learn from the programme only that ‘Mark’s first play’ was a big success.”
That first play – Shopping and Fucking – was famously never seen in its entirety by Mark’s parents; so it was a particular pleasure to be introduced to them by Mark before the show when I ran into him. I asked if it was the first play of his that they’d seen – they answered they’d seen The Cut, half of Shopping and Fucking, and parts of Mother Clapp’s Molly House in rehearsal at the National. Finally, here was a show they could see without fear of being shocked.
If there was no crack cocaine in the show, Ravenhill and Hall haven’t entirely cracked the form, but they’ve made a good stab at it. Matt Wolf, calling it “an amiably shambolic affair that (like most pantos, at least in my experience) is at least a half hour too long but makes up in unforced geniality what it may lack in finesse”, points out that it’s a “knockabout evening that, unusually, seemed to leave the adults in the house considerably more restless than some entirely absorbed kids.”
And that’s the ultimate test of the panto: does it keep the kids absorbed? You need, as usual, to head out to the Hackney Empire for a show that appeals equally to kids and those that bring them there: the magic there is entirely infectious. And while Hall, at the helm of the Barbican’s show, is a panto virgin, the (not so) secret weapon of audience hypnosis at Hackney is director Susie McKenna, directing her eighth panto there. Susie, who has also been a notable principal boy in her time, understands the form from the inside out, and it shows. Why didn’t the Barbican pick her up to do the job for them? Or the Old Vic with their misfiring Aladdin? Unlike at the Barbican though, last Thursday’s press night for Cinderella didn’t see too many of the first night lot in attendance: I saw only the Guardian’s Michael Billington and Time Out’s Rachel Halliburton. While Michael says he wasn’t blown away by it, in his review today he writes, “I admired its multiculturalism and shrewd mix of tradition and innovation. It also has the great advantage of being staged in the most beautiful theatre in London.” The auditorium has its own unique and distinctive part to play in the magic that always makes this one of the best pantos in London.
The unique magic of the Stratford East’s Theatre Royal also has a big part to play in that venue’s annual panto outing. But Stratford East – who have long been pushing the envelope of new musical writing that has already yielded them the vibrant West End hit The Big Life – also use this slot to do something else: they create a genuinely engaging piece of popular musical theatre making that also ticks the panto boxes, and this year’s musicalisation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale The Snow Queen is a real original.
But theatre isn’t just for Christmas – or even about Christmas; it’s for life. Panto can be a wonderful introduction to its joys; but an increasing number of theatres are also pushing beyond the panto envelope, too, to embrace and engage young audiences in big pieces of storytelling theatre at this time of year. The National reaped big dividends last year with their stage adaptation of Coram Boy – a show that may seem improbable fare for seasonal entertainment, with multiple acts of infanticide (with the babies, some of them apparently while still alive, buried onstage in full view of the audience), an onstage hanging and child trafficking playing big parts in the narrative. Once again, though, the kids watching it are big and bold enough to take it all on board; it’s the adults who recoil.
I saw it again on Saturday, and was overwhelmed by its vibrant theatricality and gripping narrative, even more so than the first time I saw it. For some intriguing comparisons, it was fascinating to go yesterday to the new Unicorn Theatre, near Tower Bridge, for another narrative adventure based on a children’s book, Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea, and find a young family audience similarly gripped in this beautifully told story of a child confronting an alien landscape. As with Coram Boy, a musical underscoring is key to maintaining the atmosphere; but there’s even a key plot point in common with a young boy whose voice is about to break that leads to other consequences for him.
And then last night I wrapped up a busy weekend of festive (and not-so-festive) theatregoing with the one-off cabaret celebration, Christmas in New York from the occasional Notes from New York series. I’ve profiled the series co-founder, leading man and associate director Paul Spicer in the current issue of The Stage; but last night he and his regular collaborators, including director and musical director David Randall and producer Neil Eckersley pulled off their biggest and most accomplished show yet. With twelve soloists and a full onstage choir, they created a beautiful evening of new Christmas music and old classics to a near sell-out house.