Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the theatre without an anti-pun shield and a raincoat
The wee small hours of this morning found me writing my review from last evening’s press night at the Epstein. Contemplating the strange new creature that is Easter Panto made me reflect back to the ten Christmas shows that I saw during a fortnight in December and to realise that many of them never found their way into these pages, with my words confined to the stuff I’d been asked to write elsewhere.
I reckon that I clocked up eight pantos of varying description and a further two Christmas productions in a two-week period and my diagnosis of theatre addiction was confirmed (as though confirmation were necessary) by the fact that I then chose to return to at least four of these shows again before they closed – some of them more than once.
But to the matter in hand and Snow White at the Epstein. I had already determined that I was going to go to this Easter show before I was asked to cover it. Having been to their Christmas panto, Cinderella, I was interested to explore how the format translates when moved away from the festive season and an additional draw was the reappearance of some of the same cast.
The first thing that struck me was the fact that there seems to be quite an appetite for it, with the theatre foyer packed to the gunnels with children of all ages, some even older than me. This one is running for just a week and a half, compared to the extended period that Christmas pantos enjoy, but when companies like LHK productions have a whole lot of sets and costumes in stock for an almost off-the-peg performance, the staging is no less colourful than you’d expect from a longer run. It is noticeable that there’s rather less polish than the show might be given if it were to be the theatre’s big money-maker for the year, but it was hugely entertaining nonetheless, with some memorable performances.
As with many panto producers, Lee Kelly has elected to cast from a mixture of professional performers and professional celebrities, and this often leads to an uneven result, but here the balance works well. Taking the title role of Snow White is Georgina Austin, who has danced with the company for four years but has now been given the chance to shine in a lead part, and shine she does. She’s clearly comfortable on stage and communicates really well with the audience, getting the children’s attention from her first appearance. More than this, she has a great singing voice and excellent diction so every word, whether spoken or sung, is easily heard, something some directors sadly forget to check.
The director of these Epstein pantos also writes the scripts and plays the dame. Michael Chapman is a firm favourite here and not without good reason. The writing contains the traditional mixture of humour aimed at both halves of the audience, with a good deal of thinly veiled bawdiness for the adults that creeps in beneath the radar of the youngsters, but Chapman gets the pitch just right and never oversteps the mark. He’s famously developed a unique way of dealing with children onstage and it is with absolute glee that the volunteers brave enough to get up there are shoved about, his hand in their faces. You’d expect tears, but what you get are broad smiles. Dame Debbie the palace cook (or Double D) is his alter-ego this season.
Of course Debbie has a son, Muddles the court jester, who’s the vehicle for a very welcome return from the Christmas cast, Lewis Pryor. Lewis was only sixteen when he wowed audiences with his exceptional Buttons. Now a veteran of seventeen, he’s back to prove that it was no fluke. When I reviewed the Christmas show I (and numerous others) said his was a name to remember, and he didn’t disappoint. Here is a young man clearly born to be on the stage and he can work an audience with all the flair and confidence of performers with three or four times his years and experience. An absolute natural, here is someone who deserves all the support and good breaks he can get.
Debi Jones is better known locally for her TV and Radio presenting, but her early training as a singer shows in her vocal performances here as a slightly too likeable Wicked Queen. Her magic mirror, arbiter of beauty, appears on a giant TV screen and is personified by Ricky Tomlinson. He got to sit and watch himself last night, as his performance is pre-recorded. Inevitably it is in one of his most enduring characterisations that he makes his proclamations as Jim Royle, slouched into a battered armchair.
When you’re looking for a celebrity face for your posters the world of reality TV offers a catalogue of names to choose from. For Prince Charming the producers have found a former star of The Apprentice and Celebrity Big Brother. James Hill is an entrepreneur with a sense of humour and who’s willing to be taken not so seriously in his role as Prince Charming. Some of his earlier stage movements would have been better suited to Madame Tussaud’s but he soon relaxed into the part and was clearly having fun. Lesser mortals may have dried when getting their lines tied in knots, but Hill laughed it off to the delight of the audience. Something else that delighted the audience (or certainly all those persuaded by a six pack and so forth) were his increasingly revealing costumes, which proved that a flair for business is not his only asset.
Tom Burroughs, who played Michael Chapman’s ugly sister in Cinderella, returns as the evil Henchman. With a wig straight out of the chamber of horrors he’s a good foil to the wicked queen and although the part isn’t quite as rich as the one he was given at Christmas he relishes every line.
There’s a somewhat insignificant turn from Olivia Horton as a good fairy, whose lines sadly disappeared into the ether before reaching row D of the stalls. Hopefully over the next few days the sound team can give her a bit of a boost so that she’s audible.
Most startling of all are the seven dwarves (or is that dwarfs – the programme and posters can’t agree?). We’re reliably informed that inside the costumes are seven children, but on the outside they tower above even the tallest of the other cast members. As they waddled off the set at one point, the foam heads bumping into the doorframes, my friend remarked that they looked like something out of It’s a Knockout, a thought I was beginning to think myself. There was something rather more sinister than cute about them, and the renaming of some of them didn’t go any further toward convincing me. When were there ever characters called Bossy, Basher and Boppi in the tale? They’ll be renaming Santa’s reindeer next and then where will we be...
As always with the panto it’s important to fill the stage with movement and colour, and once again a multitude of dancers from several local dance and drama academies have been assembled to do just this. Holli Jo Bradley has created some really elegant choreography for them and it’s a great showcase for the wealth of young talent that’s out there.
In the final analysis a panto has to be judged on whether it’s a good family outing that the smallest of children can enjoy along with their grandparents and everyone in between. By that yardstick this is a hit, judging by the cheers and screams of delight from an audience whose very youngest members had remained remarkably rapt for almost two and a half hours – no mean feat.
Sooner or later I will fill in the gaps from Christmas but, in the words of one of those shows, that’s another story, never mind...
Snow White runs at the Epstein Theatre until 6th April.
|Snow White - LHK productions|
|Debi Jones, Ricky Tomlinson, James Hill, Georgia Austin & Lewis Pryor Photo (c) Bond Media|