Theatre: The campaign for real panto

Children may love the glitz, noise, telly in-jokes, pop songs and pratfalls, but most adults endure pantos through gritted teeth. Wrong attitude. That's what it's all about - and it works. By Dominic Cavendish

IT'S EASY to put the boot into Christmas pantos. Panto is, as we know, the great British invention that no one else has wanted to copy. It lays claim to a noble tradition stretching back 300 years, but its prevailing style seems stuck in the more recent past - a tawdry geniality that is forever Seventies light entertainment. Think panto and you think of a razzamatazzed, bastardised fairy tale, stocked with C-list TV celebrities, laughing in the face of career adversity. It's a species of entertainment that can only be for kids, surely. The kind of kids who don't know any better.

It's hard for an adult - let alone a reviewer - to admit that they have actually enjoyed an example of this maligned artform. And not at the arm's- length distance of ironic approval, or vicariously, through the gurgling delight of other people's children, or even through an anthropological filter. But closely involved, experiencing a state of wonder. It's a shock to say it, but Peter Pan at Wimbledon Theatre induced such a state.

If ever an actress was expressly put on the planet to play a panto Pan, it's Bonnie Langford. She doesn't seem to have aged at all over the past 20 years. Her website - you guessed it, www.bonnielangford.co.uk - says she's been in the business 29 years, but she still looks like a child star. Just as JM Barrie's boy hero returns to seek new generations to play with, so Bonnie comes back again and again, seeking new audiences to play to. With time, she has perfected the art of scrunching up her nose and raising her eyebrows, which she can lift beyond their usual inclination (extreme astonishment), almost off her face entirely, to express especial delight.

It's not her beaming, evergreen presence that holds this E&B production, written and directed by Jon Conway, together, though. The beauty of the show is that nothing manages to stay centre-of-attention for long. It's a perfectly orchestrated shambles.

There's doe-eyed funnyman Joe Pasquale's Smee, whose squeaky voice - that of a cockney castrato - looses with unflagging glee a barrage of appalling puns, smutty jokes and camp come-ons. There's a baleful-looking Leslie Grantham, now in his fifth year in the roles of Mr Darling / Hook, who utters every line through gritted teeth, as though fearing Pasquale's tongue more than the pursuivant crocodile. There's a sopping wet Wendy, a Tinkerbell who can't make up her mind whether she's a red laser light or a silver-painted woman on rollerskates, plus assorted acrobatic, slapstick pirates and scantily clad Indians who inexplicably break into a Steps- like dance to Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca".

The only constant, in fact, is the interplay with the audience, who are encouraged to match the performers in deafening volume. The particulars of the story, and the concerns about growing up that underpin it, all take secondary place to this raucous relationship. The informal rapport across the proscenium arch - aided by the usual, "it's behind you"-type catchphrases - helps realise Barrie's Neverland after a theatrical fashion. In this interactive environment, distinctions between adult and child break down. Everyone misbehaves.

Hackney Empire's Cinderella fitfully achieves that fourth-wall-busting dynamic between spectator and performer. The strong cast boasts an amazingly soulful fairy godmother - Sharon D Clarke, the diva who formerly fronted club phenomenon Nomad - and two wonderful ugly sisters: Tony Whittle as Lav, and Clive Rowe as Lu (a flushing sound accompanies any mention of their monikers). The two pout and preen their way through a selection of spectacularly garish costumes, closely attended by their nouveau high- class bitch of a mum (played by Carol Harrison, essentially getting to ham up her role as Tiffany's disgraced mater, Louise, in EastEnders).

The heavily rouged sisters first appearance - in ra-ra skirts, blonde wigs and blouses embossed with L-plates - to the tune of "Beauty School Drop Out" hits just the right note of absurd anachronism. But as the ball approaches, writer and director Susie McKenna piles on so many pop cultural references, it feels as though her inspiration has run dry. Not only do we get straight runs of "La Vida Loca" and this year's other most grating chart hit, Lou Bega's "Mambo No 5", but even the romantic centrepieces are farmed out: the Prince warbles away to "Ain't No Sunshine" as Helen Latham's Cinderella rushes off at the stroke of 12. The resolution - to a mock-Jerry Springer show - likewise feels forced and remote, but there's always enough bonhomie from the actors to prevent the atmosphere from freezing over.

All the joviality in the world, though, can't save the Theatre Royal Stratford East's Dick Whittington at the newly reopened Greenwich Theatre from being a plodding, largely uninvolving affair. You know there's something wrong when there's not a single good topical gag about Dick's mayoral ambitions or the Millennium. This show's crime is to be too tasteful. It shares many ingredients in common with both the other London-set pantos - everything from the "isn't our city fab?" opening number to the tritely sentimental dreams-can-come-true lyrics. But missing from the mix is a sense that the object is to lark around rather than to reach a stated goal.

The audience is somehow expected to pay attention to the squeaky clean progress of a man whose limp soundbites ("I live for a song, I die for a kiss and I long for a love") make Frank Dobson sound like Oscar Wilde. "He gets on my nerves", John Halstead's panto dame rightly complains. "Can you feel the magic, Tiddles?" Dick asks. Well, no. The funniest line of the whole evening is to be found in the programme biogs. Bill Thomas who plays the evil Wormwood's sidekick Dogsbreath is, apparently, "still best remembered in south London for his portrayal of the slug in the premiere of Luttuce at a fringe theatre in Eltham in the Seventies". Director Kerry Michael should have taken note: when it comes to panto, the only way to proceed is to be shameless. Absolutely shameless.

'Peter Pan' (0181-540 0362), to 23 January; 'Cinderella' (0181-985 2424), to 9 January; 'Dick Whittington' (0181-858 7755), to 22 January

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