Review: Footlights Panto: The Princess and the Pea

Frances Docx 28 November 2013

7.45pm, Wed 27 Nov to Sat 7 Dec (except Sun 1 Dec), ADC Theatre

The Footlights Panto is an event which seems to have been swallowing up the Michaelmas ADC termcard since the dawn of time (or at least the 70s). We make great demands upon it, we expect it to be long, to be sold out, to be funny and hold together a narrative arc and above all, to make us feel Christmassy. With a tradition stretching back to some of the most over-invoked footlights names (I’m thinking of Fry, Mitchell, Laurie etc.) the Panto sets its own bar to be measured against, a bar of Olympian height.

This year, The Princess and the Pea, fell slightly short.  This is not to say the production wasn’t enjoyable or that it did not excel hundreds of other productions you might see in a given Cambridge term; it was and it did. It is simply that by the standards of writing of previous years, The Princess and the Pea was a little humour-lite. 

The puns kept coming, and the jokes slowly rolled out, but the writing just wasn’t as sharp as I remember it being last year. With a joke about asymmetrical echoes which strongly smacked of a certain scene in the film The Grinch I couldn’t help but feel we were scrabbling around for some really whole-bodied laughter. The audience spluttered in patches but rarely were the whole room laughing at once.

Moments when we laughed unanimously stemmed from the brilliance of the cast, Henry Jenkinson, an actor with the versatility of elastic Tupperware, who has previously thrown his lot in with musical theatre, Greek tragedy and now pantomime, lit up as the asthmatic Panto Dame, Barbara Zier.  Maria  Pawlikowska, another face with reams of stage experience delivered the starring role, Lenor, with grace and power. I only wish Saul Boyer, Jennie King and Luke Sumner, all members of the ensemble, had been given more stage time, although perhaps this is testament to the strength of the cast if even “peripheral” characters warranted further attention.

The set design was enough to make Inigo Jones choke on his paintbrush. Not only was each scene startling in its composition, chilling in its scale and precise in its detail but the mastery with which scenes split and unfolded onto each other exposed the technical brilliance of designers Calderon and Devalle. This kaleidoscopic design was, without hesitation, the best I have seen in my three years at Cambridge.

There were, ineluctably, first night glitches. Sound needed tightening up and I imagine producer Daisy Bard will be reminding those backstage to turn off their microphones in subsequent performances. These are all forgivable first night teething problems, indeed, the backstage chatter was miraculously saved by the on-stage Queen Olga, Emma Powell, and her brilliantly executed quip ‘I must stop listening to those voices again!’

Powell as the Evil Queen was utterly electric. I am yet to see a production where Powell leaves me disappointed; she delivers every line with high energy and a face which twists and turns like a Rubiks cube. Frequently descending into a sort of captivating mania, she elicits irrepressible laughter from the audience and achieves that accolade of all good comedians: the mid-scene applause.

The Panto this year was more fun than funny, more plot than prank and could have done with a bit less song. But as I hope I have stressed, the standards for the Panto are exhaustingly high and director Sam Rayner has a great deal to be proud of in this production which by the end of its run, I’m sure will be pitch-perfect.