And not an Aladdin among them...
Feeling pantophobic? From The Witches to Frankenstein, we review the best alternative Christmas shows in London
Saturday 14 December 1996
Not content with producing a Christmas show that's for the family, the Steam Industry have come up with a musical comedy that's about the family, in particular about the role of fathers and the needs of sons. Set in London during the Blitz, tells the story of Billy Spratt and his mother, Rose. Billy's father has been killed during the war, but numerous surrogates abound. There's Edmund, the feckless gay young man, who lives in Rose's guesthouse, and shares in Billy's innocent fantasies about the radio superhero . There's Charles, the suave American officer, who Rose considers marrying to give Billy a man around the house. And above all, there's Daredevil himself, a red-blooded (and red-tighted) superhero, whose intergalactic exploits Billy avidly follows on his mother's art deco radiogram.
When Edmund invents a machine that can travel to and from Dick's world, Billy gets a chance to show his mettle against the evil space emperor Von Rippenclaw - and to see how Daredevil copes with wartime England. To Phil Willmott's credit he manages to weave the subtext subtly into the action, rather than ramming it down the audience's throat. Too subtly, perhaps. What should be the highlight of the piece, Billy's encounter with Daredevil in London, is passed over with reckless haste. All too brief, the best scene - a bittersweet sequence in which Daredevil sets out with Billy to foil a Nazi plot against Churchill but ends up getting drunk in the pub - hints at what might have been.
All is not lost, though. Steven Markwick's score doesn't exactly send you out into Fitzrovia foot-tapping, but it runs the gauntlet from pastiche Cole Porter to pastiche Kurt Weill well enough. Sarah Payne puts in a fine singing performance as Billy's plucky mum, and Von Rippenclaw (Howard Samuels) makes a first-class villain, waxing lyrical about the "patter of little jackbootees". If the twin morals - anyone can be a hero, and families don't have to have fathers - ultimately seem a little pat, well, maybe it would help to be closer to Billy's age than Dick's. Adrian Turpin
The Drill Hall, 16 Chenies Street, WC1 (0171-637 8270). To 18 Jan
Frankenstein: The Panto
Not Mary Shelley's monster-maker but Frankie N Stein, porter at Herr Pumpernickle's Bavarian hotel and brother of the culturally challenged Phyllis. Writer David Swan has co-opted Dracula and Dracula's grandmother, Granula, into this low- budget hijinks, as well as a party of over-sexed schoolgirls and their only slightly less libidinous school mistress, Miss Nellie. As the self- regarding St Trinianette Bridget Bloggs fights the chambermaid Heidi for the attention of Prince Ludwig, the dark count attempts to quench his thirst for virgin blood. Only a mad scientist with a penchant for peppermint saves the day.
Gillian King's snappy little production shares features with the big- name, big-money pantomimes: shaving-foam pies, TV-inspired jokes (both television and transvestite) and a fondness for the words "bottom" and "knickers". But the Tabard Theatre's small space, as well as a young cast devoid of boxers and soap stars, make this a far more intimate affair, while John Asquith's commanding Nellie (always on the right side of innocent, even when performing a striptease) gives new life to the cliche "There is nothing like a dame". AT
Tabard Theatre, Chiswick W4 (0181-995 6035). To 21 Dec
It's a brave theatre that sells wands that light up in the dark before its Christmas production. So it's a mark of David Wood's adaptation of Roald Dahl's novel, that The Witches isn't lost behind a tinselly sea of swizzle sticks, borne aloft like cigarette-lighters at a Barry Manilow concert. You can put a lot of this down to Dahl's compellingly idiosyncratic vision of what a witch is like: toeless, bald as a coot, possessed of blue spit and able to sniff out a child at 40 paces (apparently they smell of dog-droppings). No surprise that the biggest laughs go to a joke about "DIY gravy" (guess) and a rodent trapped down a waiter's pants.
But Wood, who also directs, never lets the snot-laden gags, or even the irritatingly cutesy puppet mice, distract from the plot. Nor is he afraid of stillness or to leave the stage almost bare when it suits his purpose. Dahl's strange coming-of-age fable about the orphaned Boy (a saccharin- free but winsome Karen Briffett) who is transformed into a mouse comes through loud and clear, and is spared the happy-ever-after ending grafted on to last year's Disney version. "How long does a mouse live?" asks the child condemned to spend the rest of his life avoiding cats and eating cheese. "Not very long, I'm afraid," replies his grandmother. Moving, challenging and funny, The Witches is surprisingly intelligent fare for a West End children's show. AT
Vaudeville, The Strand, London WC2 (0171-836 9987). To 18 Jan
Oedipus: The Pantomime
The show that's not afraid to wear its eyes on its sleeve. Or so says the chorus. In fact, it's more a case of the blind leading the blind. The plot doesn't deviate that much from Sophocles' original (though the old man may be looking down from Olympus scratching his head at a couple of deities called Terry and Juno). Unfortunately, it's also not that much funnier. At the risk of sounding sick, the problem is that David Mitchell and Robert Webb's script is curiously tame. It flirts with bad taste, but never quite goes all the way. And, let's face it, what other reason can there be for doing Oedipus as a comedy than to plumb the depths? Still, if you're so over-educated that the exchange "How are the Bacchi today?" "Oh, ecstatic as usual" makes you split your sides, you may get some pleasure of it. Otherwise, go and buy Tom Lehrer's song tribute to the king of Thebes, which does much the same job but in a 50th of the time. AT
Pleasance, London N7 (0171-609 1800). To 12 Jan
Listen to the Wind
Before his death earlier this year, Vivian Ellis penned three new songs for Listen to the Wind, a jolly slice of Victoriana, already jam-packed with arch little tunes about wicked pirates, sea witches and dopey talking birds. The story follows three children abducted from their home on Christmas Eve and spirited away to the Palace of Winds, where they defeat the evil forces of Black Thunder Cloud, a baddie with a "stormy" personality.
After a sticky beginning, where the poor little rich girl becomes friends with her ruffian cousins, and the company sing an interminable pastiche parlour song called "Timothy's Under the Table", the play takes off, bouncing airily through its fey fantasy, and scattering delicious lyrics along the way. Miranda, the raddled mermaid, delivers a pleasingly world-weary number about her transition from fishy femme fatale to "old sea cow" ("I used to be an actress at the Moules Marinieres, the only thing I wore was seaweed in my hair") and the cast perform with gusto, but this 1954 musical certainly shows it's age.
After two hours of drawing-room whimsy, you begin to feel as though someone has been force-feeding you glace cherries. For little children, the adventure and magical set design should keep them rapt, but while grown-ups may relish Ellis's precious punning about Miranda's "larks" with "sharks", you can't help wonder what anyone between the ages of seven and consent will make of it all. If they're not sniggering over the title, I suspect they may find it all a bit rich. Liese Spencer
King's Head, Upper St, London N1 (0171-226 1916). To 19 Jan
The Servant of Two Masters
I still haven't quite got over a distrust of Carlo Goldoni since going to see Countrymania, the National Theatre's bum-numbingly leaden medley of the Italian's work, in the 1980s. Ted Craig's Servant of Two Masters is something else, whispy as the top of a cappuccino (indeed, its chessboard and primary colours design is reminiscent of that masterpiece of aeration, Ian Judge's RSC Comedy of Errors). It's also about as nourishing as cappuccino, but who's to begrudge a little well-whisked froth at Christmas?
The story is a kind of 18th-century cross between Up Pompeii and Carry On Eating, its hero the servant Truffaldino, who runs himself off his feet trying to serve two masters at once. It's full of clattering plates, slaps to the head, fast-swinging doors and a trifle the size of St Peter's dome in Rome. There's food in the audience, too, where tables have been set aside for patrons to eat and drink. If Miltos Yerolemou sometimes tries a little too hard to be liked as the eponymous manservant, there's ample consolation in some finely drawn supporting performances, not least Richard Kane's Venetian merchant as Jewish East End businessman, Pantalone. An enjoyable evening. AT
Warehouse Theatre, Croydon (0181-680 4060). To 26 Jan
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