The pantomime is a Christmas tradition, and every year they seem to get bigger and bigger. In a way, the classic pantomime has become a back drop for a competition between the theatres. Who can pull in the bigger names to take on the staring roles? Who can have the grandest and most over the top costumes and special effects. And with the pantomime making it’s seemingly much awaited return to the London Palladium (the grand old home of the English Panto) this year, it seems that everyone wants in on the act, whether the theatre is large or small.
Pantomime is not a new event for the Theatre Royal Plymouth, yet (rather surprisingly) this is the first time that I have attended such an event. But here I was with a day off of work and the knowledge that there was a few single seats available for the last Thursday matinee before Christmas. So to pantomime I went. And let it be known that there is no way that anyone can deem themselves to be ‘too old for panto’. Yes, there was a lot of children but that isn’t a surprise. Pantomimes were designed to entertain children, to be the first experience of live theatre for children, and to overall make them laugh, cheer the heroes and boo the baddies. That is pantomime in a nutshell if you want to put things simply.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, or shall we call it Snow White and the seven men on their knees. In a throwback to the hilariously popular man on his knees Lord Farqaard of Shrek the Musical fame, it is now the trend for dwarves to be played by man of their knees rather then little people. Allegedly, this is because it’s cheaper to use men who are willing to walk and dance on their knees for a two hour show then it is to pay for little people to perform. Whether that is the case or not, the use of the men performing on their knees is funny to put it bluntly. In order to walk on their knees, the rest of their bodies has to move in a certain way, for example, the leaning back and the funny seemingly over the top movement in the arms. It is funny and the audience certainly loved it. In the case of this particular show, it also allowed for the very funny use of fancy dress costumes in the form of a certain scene in which the ‘dwarves’ are seen riding an array of woodland creatures on the way to work whilst they sing about their love of the Devon Scone (to the tune of ‘Heaven is a place on Earth).
As I mentioned earlier, there is an element of competition when it comes to pantomimes. If there is any way to pull in an audience, it is to cast big well known names. In the case of Plymouth’s Pantomime, this was Birds of a feather’s Leslie Joseph as the evil queen and Blue’s Duncan James as the charming Prince Duncan. And they did not disappoint for there is always the worry over whether these big names can live up to expectations. This wasn’t the first time on stage for either of these celebrities with Leslie Joseph previously showing off her abilities to play horrid in Annie and Duncan showing his musical abilities in the recent tour of Priscilla Queen of the Desert.
Both were brilliant. Duncan James certainly knew how to play the classic prince charming, hands on hips, a cheeky grin and the evident knowledge that the audience knew exactly what he was famous for with references to Blue songs during a bit song medley with follow along ‘side kick’ Muddles. It is this awareness and inclusion of what the celebrity is famous for that can work so brilliantly well in a pantomime. Chances are that is the children who are there for the story, and the parents who are there is see the big names on stage. Therefore, references and jokes can be used that will get a laugh from the adults yet fly over the children’s heads. Of course this goes into another popular and pivotal part of the panto, innuendo. Of course there are naughty jokes for the adults that the children won’t even notice. Especially here with Leslie Joseph, best known for her role as toy boy loving naughty fiction writing Dorian Green. The Evil Queen was very much Dorian, fawning over the attractive Prince Duncan and successfully managing to get his top off during her version of ‘Can’t take my eyes off of you’, much to the delight of the audience.
Another important part of pantomime and a part that was very evident in this performance of Plymouth’s Panto, was the idea that anything can happen. There are children in the audience, children who are encouraged to shout, scream and interact with the characters on stage. And, of course, with children, no one knows what they are going to say. A funny example of this occurred when the evil queen announced that she was the most beautiful in the land, a child in the audience shouted out ‘No you’re not, you’re really ugly! And for a moment, she lost it and struggled to hold her character as she replied that the child should have gone to Specsavers. But that is all a part of the panto experience. Another example of anything could happen, and did happen, was when four children were asked to take part in the sing along of Old MacDonald. It was easy enough when the favourite animals were a dog and a cat, but when otters and fish were mentioned, Muddles was left asking the ushers where they had found these children.
And in the case of this panto, it wasn’t just the audience trying to get the actors to break character. Ben Nickless as Muddles was absolutely brilliant and was the source of most of the laughter. Whether he was singing silly songs or bringing out the impersonations, he certainly knew how to make the audience crack up laughing. He also seemed to enjoy trying to get his co star’s to crack up with his added lines and jokes. He succeeded in making Leslie Joseph laugh during a hypnosis scene and tried his hardest to make Prince Duncan laugh.
The special effects were great, with the huge magic mirror emerging from the pit and the dragon flying out over the stalls on a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang style lift, and who doesn’t love sparkles and confetti being thrown out over the audience. The use of music was great, with songs ranging from ‘Can’t stop the feeling’ to ‘You raise me up’ with the usual panto twists. The use of the well known pop songs works wonders on the kids, whilst the changes to the lyrics is great for the adults who understand the jokes.
If I had to pick one thing that didn’t really work, it would be the dame. Traditionally in pantomimes such as Snow White, the dame is the evil queen but with Leslie Joseph cast in this role, this wasn’t the case. Here the Dame was in the role of the castle cook and Muddle’s mother and for me, it didn’t feel needed. ‘She’ only appeared every now and again and was really only there to get the laugh from the kids when she came on stage in more and more outlandish costumes. There just didn’t seem to be much of a point to the dame. I, for one, wouldn’t have missed it if there hadn’t been a dame at all.
In conclusion, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a great pantomime. It was hilariously funny, over the top and just fun. That is was pantomime is. It’s two hours of pure fun and escapism into a world of magic and laughter, full of silly characters and funny games. And that was this pantomime in a nutshell. With this being my first visit to Plymouth’s Pantomime, I am sure that it won’t be my last with the panto of Peter Pan already being announced for next year.