Venue: Central Hall
Having never been to a pantomime, I had several assumptions about the hallowed art form:
1. They have a target audience of children under 10 years of age
2. The audience cheers and jeers where appropriate
3. They require rotten fruit and vegetables to throw at thespians to express dissatisfaction
Due to the fact that pantomimes aren’t just plays staged at the Globe during Shakespearean times, my assumptions were quickly dissolved with the emcees bad French accent, leaving a delightful spectacle of colourful characters, dubiously appropriated tunes, and hilarious one-liners and attempts at humour.
The music choice were largely fun, the lyrics albeit clunky at parts as they were rewritten to suit the plot. But when a revised rendition of High School Musical’s ‘Bet on it’ came on, no, absolutely not. I’m a fan of Disney tunes as much as the next nostalgic sod, but when you choose the worst song from the worst High School Musical, I have to put my foot down. No one needs to remember Zac Efron’s constipated, adolescent angst-riddled performance.
The audience and I did enjoy the familiar tune of ‘Father knows best’. Kudos to writer, Louise Jones, unfortunately, we did notice the all allusions to Tangled, sorry. Hopefully that will teach you not to underestimate the audience’s extensive knowledge of movies we are all far too old for. The clarinetist, Richard Oakman, deserves special mention for his vivaciously vibrant accompaniment to Jenny Thompson’s vocals.
The obvious crowd-pleasers, however, were the rousing ‘80s numbers, ‘Final Countdown’ (changed to ‘Fight for Quentin’) and ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, the large cast clearly enjoying those songs as well as their dancing was considerably more impassioned and energetic than in the slightly half-hearted opening song. Though movements could be sharper in parts such as the freeze frames in the beginning, the individualised chorus dancing in character was a lovely, subtle detail often neglected in musical choreography. No surprise, the two choreographers, Hannah Forsyth and Bryony Anne (also Dancers 1 and 2), stood out, though very differently. Forsyth’s beautiful lines, grace and energy were wonderfully expressive, both in her movements and facial expressions. Anne also held her own, especially outstanding in the tap routine, bringing a refreshing jazzy attitude to rival Forsyth’s grace.
The script, though not without its flashes of brilliance, was slightly disappointing. Despite the promising start with the good-natured French animosity against the British tourist, this is an example of one such humorous element that was dropped and never returned to later in the performance. Side-splitting one-liners such as the tarty gargoyle dismissively remarking, “Flesh is so overrated” and clever ideas like making Quentin the ‘hunchback’ a soothsayer because he has hunches about the future in his back could not quite redeem the difficulty in sustaining the humour. The insufficient characterisation of the protagonist, Quentin, was also problematic as he came off as one-dimensional and did not have as clear a character arc as the other main characters and thus his personal developments were rather abrupt.
Yet, Esmerelda, played by Lisa Owen, though far from French, was a divine take on the Disney’s boring damsel in distress with her strong Welsh accent who undoubtedly stole the show. Fantastically varied and extremely spirited, Owen’s performance was both nuanced and dynamic, proving that big things come in small packages as her larger-than-life persona was everything you’d expect from a pantomime thespian.
The mini choruses within the cast were also brilliantly fleshed out, the gargoyles and guards painstakingly and individually crafted by the playwright. Dave, the mute gargoyle was a particular favourite, a testament to the sheer power of physical comedy in pantomimes, not to mention the fluent verbosity of his word vomit when he regains his ability to speak.
Pheobus, played by Harry Ward, was a pleasure to watch, as his energy was probably one of the most consistent, taking on the daunting task of filling the large space of Central Hall with his enormous stage presence. Though initially lacking in the shades of evil that his character had the potential of, the addition of his femme fatale girlfriend brought out an amazingly varied performance from him as his slimy persona slipped away to reveal a sputtering, hapless boyfriend.
A pleasant surprise came in the form of the nuanced character of Frollo, acted by the feisty Jenny Thomson who certainly filled the cape of the Arch-Deacon. Demanding, dangerous and daring, her shrill outcries gave a nice metatheatrical nod to her cross-dressing. Personally, I shipped Fro Fro and Tipi (who is, by the way, amazing in heels) waaaaaay more than Esmerelda and Quentin, and actually preferred the latter couple when they were bickering through humorous retorts and jabs at each other.
Even if you’re not a fan of Disney, PantSoc’s latest offering will dispel all notions of the characters as we know them and is sure to leave you entertained.
After all, it is the “best thing since sliced brioche”.