IT RANKS as a topic for Great Bores of Today. 'You just can't find a decent panto to take the kids to these days, can you?' It's true that pantomime took a dive in the early Seventies, when staying in for the end-of-year Generation Game seemed a more amusing proposition. But lately it has resurfaced, refreshed and reformed, with a little help from chocolate manufacturers, television folk and a clutch of radical lesbian feminists. It may not be considered traditional pantomime, but then traditional doesn't always mean best.
At the Drill Hall's Sleeping Beauty, the audience is the first eye-opener. Hardly any children (I counted three), and a preponderance of university lecturers, teacher-types and amorous couples, mostly female. The second surprise is that the all-woman show is neither a travesty nor quite a take-off of Perrault's tale. It makes great play of sticking to the details of the original plot, even down to an audition for the correct number of godmothers for a baby Princess. Three are chosen, all deserters from other pantos. There's Gretel (Barcy Cogdale), who left Hansel back in the wood guzzling gingerbread, and Beauty (Sandra Yaw), sated with tips from Cosmopolitan on how to keep your Beast interested, and Cinderella's Fairy Godmother (hilarious in Tricia Kelly's breezy and buxom suburban aunty) who has finished the glass slipper job and is looking for her next commission.
The comic potential of the one-sex cast is cleverly exploited in Bryony Lavery and Nona Shepphard's script, which has the godmothers trotting out screeds of dialogue in unison, becoming at times a fast and funny parody of well-brought-up feminine responses. Most of the musical numbers, such as 'Hurrah] It's a Girl]', follow the same wisdom, with catchily simple tunes that can be belted out by the entire cast as one strong contralto.
The convoluted business of male impersonation is overcome in Serena Harragin's convincingly whiskery old King, and in her second guise as a swaggering young City broker, Prince. This is where the Drill Hall's gentle subversion comes in. When the Princess (Suneeta Rathore) stirs from her 100-year sleep, still guarded by the Old Crone, her snoring retainer, Prince, is on hand to deliver that crucial kiss.
But hold on: all the godmothers want a go too, so the Old Crone announces that the Princess must be free to choose whomsoever she wishes (that's right, boy or girl). And lo and behold, after a bit of ill-advised hanky-panky with the leering Prince, she chooses the Old Crone, who does a quick change and reappears in sparkly miniskirt and plumed hat for a round of fulsome kissing, which certain factions of the audience seem to think is the best bit in the show.
In the lavish 'traditional' pantomimes sponsored by Cadbury's, things are much more simple. The principal boy's a girl, the old woman's a man, boy (a girl) gets girl every time. Got it? When the dame is Les Dawson, as in Dick Whittington at Plymouth's Theatre Royal, the dirty laughs fly in every direction. The principal boy is asking for it, isn't he/she? 'Gosh] I'm in London]' exclaims leggy Dawn Spence's Dick, 'and I've walked all the way from Gloucester]' Not on those four-inch heels she hasn't. Mob-capped Les, shuffling on stage adjusting his pendulous falsies and smoothing his pinny, can hardly keep his hands to himself, nor his tricky tongue from improvised plays on the name of Dick. We may have heard the jokes before - 'Went to the doctor and said what's good for wind and he gave me a kite' - but we're putty in his hands. And when a piano is wheeled on for Les to do his side-splittingly incompetent turn leading an audience sing-song, all pretence at plot falls away.
This is a one-man show, with the song and dance and magnificent spectacle as ballast (Cadbury's throws money at its productions the way the players toss one-brand sweets to the gallery), but who says it's not traditional? By the early 19th century, the English pantomime had already 'deteriorated' into a series of scenes where characters chased each other in and out of sausage shops. Things are looking up.
Armed with the belief that big budget doesn't equal quality, this critic had high hopes for Stratford East's Aladdin. Last year's show was a hoot. The Cockney music hall has gained a reputation for old-style pantomime that makes up in vigour what it lacks in glitz or big names, but this dull old lamp needs more than a rub. Alan Ford's dame is an avaricious East End widow, obsessed with acquiring flock wallpaper and a gas fire with pillars. The few laughs were ones of grim recognition. The genie is a pair of inflated plastic lips that descends like a pop-art oracle. Script and songs have been wiped from memory by their blandness. A bad panto is a very sorry thing indeed.
By contrast, albeit in children's theatre as opposed to pantomime, the Oxford Stage Company has built on last year's success when it won the Martini/TMA regional award for best provincial children's show. Once again it tackles Grimm's demandingly stark fairytales in a double bill with the umbrella title Fooling About. The first play is the story of Foolina, a girl rejected by her father and haughty sisters who ultimately, through harsh trials of honesty and bravery, wins their respect and the hand of a thoroughly suitable prince.
John Retallack's direction is in the best bare-boards imaginative manner, with wildly exciting gallops on mimed horseback to exotic locations, haunting songs, and a narrator in white who descends from the gods on a trapeze. The companion piece, the tale of Tom Fool, is no less enchanting for all its funky streetwise style. Tom is a joker, a layabout and robotics whizz, and leaves home to his parents' relief with the promise that he'll return a millionaire. This he does in a single day, having gathered around him a gang of wacky weirdos who enable him to win an impossible wager. This show spins theatrical magic from thin air and deserves to win medals.
'Sleeping Beauty': Drill Hall (071-637 8270) to 16 Jan; 'Dick Whittington': Plymouth (0752 267222) to 6 Feb; 'Aladdin': Theatre Royal, Stratford East (081-534 0310) to 23 Jan; 'Fooling About' tours in March to Winchester (0962 843434), Bury St Edmunds (0284 769505), Warwick (0203 524524) and Worthing (0903 235333).
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