With a long and esteemed history of productions behind them, there is a lot of pressure on any CUADC /Footlights panto team to pull off what is always a super hyped end to Michaelmas theatre. And despite some minor lulls in energy, this year’s cast and crew excel in most areas and pull out all the stops to hit the scale we’ve come to expect.
The theme of poor against bourgeois is crafted into a gag laden pastiche of party politics, capitalism and socialism which gives the classic tale space to mock everything from current day politicians to student Marxists. Initial praise must be given to writers Eleanor Colville and Raphael Wakefield, whose well-crafted characters go far beyond a regular family panto in their quest for laughs and fulfil all the panto cliché’s we love without being swallowed by them. Musical director Stephen Gage also does a sterling job with Toby Marlow’s catchy chorus lines, which in true panto tradition borrow from other shows and pop songs; a not-so-subtle nod to Frozen is surpassed by a piss-take Les Mis melody that sends cheers around the audience.
From a fly-in dungeon to a fully functioning windmill, the sets have a consistent wow factor; while sometimes taking a little too long to get on and off stage, most new scenes receive applause upon first viewing. The extravagance of it all literally sets the stage up for the outrageous costumes, ensemble dance routines and generally overblown characters key to any pantomime. Amazingly well choreographed and full of witty one liners, the full company is at its best during the act one finale ‘Vanilla’, which manages to tie together the storyline and advertise the plainest choice of interval ice cream.
The whole cast is consistently impressive, with a true strength being the commitment and flexibility of the chorus. And the stand out lead performances are clear. In her first production, fresher Ashleigh Weir truly dazzles as an earnest Marian; with the confidence of a seasoned performer, her witty Super Mario disguise and stand out vocals – especially in ‘Against the Grain’- show serious promise. Owning the stage, dashing Orlando Gibbs excels as a fantastically evil Sheriff while a newly beardless Tim Atkin never overdoes a classic Dame. Elsewhere, Blake is an inventive caricature of what seems to be a try-hard-hipster, Jesus loving Nottingham grad and is nailed by a suitably wonky, tie-dye clad Jack Needham. While Eleanor Colville is at times strained vocally, she brings enough to the role of a sexually confused Robin that she, as writer, masterfully created.
With the meta-theatrical banter we’d expect from panto, the show is poked fun at throughout and this humour is expressed most effectively when two trees (Riss Obolensky and Sam Knights), themselves parodies of the school play extra, snootily review the first half. Somewhat weak use of the ‘it’s behind you’ trope, a slight lag in comedic timing in the second half and moments of misplaced lighting aside, the production is slick and,thanks to a dynamic creative team,is a feast for the eyes as much as it is laugh a minute.
Over two hours long but never anything but entertaining, this pantomime is smart, original and more than lives up to the hype.