If it’s a bit of escapism you’re after, then you might just roll your eyes ever so slightly at this year’s Greenwich Theatre pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, where ‘prorogued’, ‘backstop’ and even ‘Jacob Rees-Mogg’ are name-dropped. Panto is never, of course, totally unpolitical – consider, for instance, continued support of the institution of marriage in an era where cohabitation is commonplace, and one can almost always draw some parallels somewhere along the way between the scheming of a panto’s antagonist and the more unpalatable policies of the Government of the day.
Not every punchline in Andrew Pollard’s panto lands well, but then this may well be deliberately so, evoking the psychology of the Christmas cracker joke that unites people in agreeing in its mediocrity, and thus ensuring the atmosphere in the room is closer to an episode of The Waltons than that of EastEnders. Pollard also plays Bertha, this panto’s dame, who isn’t the only character who makes it easy for people like yours truly to engage in call and response – here, the norm is simply to say back exactly what is said in the first place. It’s practically impossible to go wrong – so ‘Swedish au pair’ Björn’s (Eli Caldwell) ‘Hallo!’, for instance, always gets an enthusiastic reply.
There were moments, though, when proceedings felt a tad overlong. There’s a fair bit of exposition to get through in a relatively plot-heavy pantomime, which has two narratives. One is about Anastasia (Esme Bacalla-Hayes), subjected to a curse at the hands of Rasputin (Anthony Spargo) – the same curse as practically every version of Sleeping Beauty – only for the spell to be altered by Fairy Fabergé (Funlola Olufunwa). The fairy is heavily accented, and what I will call Story A is set in Russia in the nineteenth century.
Story B, meanwhile, involves Ewan Hooper (a fresh-faced Regan Burke). Hooper, born in Dundee, really was a major driving force behind the establishment of the Greenwich Theatre in its current venue in 1969 – a former music hall, it had been closed since a bomb hit it during World War Two and it had been earmarked for demolition. How Story A and Story B come together would be giving too much away, suffice to say that much is made of Hooper’s Scottish background, to the point of indulging the audience in a surprisingly entertaining rendering of The Proclaimers’ 1988 hit ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’.
This is, to the best of my recollection, the first panto I’ve been to where the designated adjudicator of the singalong section (here, musical director Steve Markwick) favoured one side of the auditorium over the other instead of doing the diplomatic thing and declaring the ‘competition’ a draw. (Your reviewer couldn’t help but have a nanosecond of smugness when it was declared that his side ‘won’.) Those with a dislike of audience participation may be relieved to know that no member of the audience is brought on stage, and those concerned about food wastage can be reassured that no pies are wasted – or food of any kind, for that matter. Not for nothing is “You don’t touch the corn; you leave the corn alone!” one of the recurring phrases.
Lovers of musical theatre are likely to be pleased with some of the song choices (far be it from me to reveal what they are, especially as there isn’t a list of numbers in the show’s programme). The second half was more entertaining than the first, and the theatre’s stage revolve is kept busy as the action kept shifting between locations and centuries – though I will commend the production for making the parallel stories easy to follow. The ghost chasing scene wasn’t much to write home about, though as ever, the main thing is that the audience goes away having had a good time, a good laugh and a good night out.
Review by Chris Omaweng
A stellar cast will bring to life the story of a time-hopping sleeping princess and an artistic director fighting to save a derelict theatre. The year is 1851 and Princess Anastasia is born of Tsar Ivar the Mildly Irritable and Tsarina Bertha. The fabulous Fairy Fabergé blesses the princess but when the wicked Rasputin appears and casts an evil spell on the little princess all seems lost. Meanwhile, in 1969, Ewan Hooper is planning his grand reopening of Greenwich Theatre before a peculiar stranger summons him back in time. Can he, with the help of some trusty allies, save both the theatre and the doomed princess?
Writer & Director
Producer: Simon Francis and James Haddrell on behalf of Greenwich Theatre
Cast: Andrew Pollard, Anthony Spargo, Regan Burke, Esme Barcalla-Hayes, Martin Johnson, Funlola Olufunwa, Lucy Andic, Eli Caldwell, Eden McLean-Elliott, Aaron Campbell
Greenwich Theatre, Crooms Hill, Greenwich, London, SE10 8ES