David Lister: Prince Charming turns panto villain

Saturday 09 January 2010 01:00

There was a story reported this week which must surely make a footnote in theatrical history.

It concerned the treatment meted out to the actor playing Prince Charming in Cinderella and how he was booed by the audience. Twenty-five-year-old Owen Woodgate who is appearing at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft, Suffolk, had somewhat injudiciously given his opinions of the town on Twitter. In a tweet that must have ruined his agent's breakfast, he wrote: "Shit hole of a town. Everyone is pregnant. No Starbucks. Hoodies dominate the street. Poo."

He later, more judiciously, changed his mind and posted a new message, saying: "First impressions of the town were way off the mark. Having a fantastic time, met some great people... and everyone has been very welcoming."

It's funny how Lowestoft can grow on people. But unfortunately for Mr Woodgate the local newspaper had reported his earlier opinions, and pregnant and non-pregnant members of the audience combined to boo.

There are conclusions to be drawn about the cavalier use of Twitter, of course. There are studies to be made of the apparently high fertility rates in Lowestoft. And the owners of Starbucks will be delighted to see that where once there were complaints that they could spoil the traditional English high street, now it is a cause for complaint if the high street does not have one. Indeed, for all its brevity, Mr Woodgate's tweet could be the basis for a sociology seminar.

But I am more interested in the artistic implications of this episode. The booing of Prince Charming is unsettling. Generally it is pantomime villains who are booed. To boo the dashing fairy-tale prince, whose very name is a pretty clear hint to the audience on how to react, must be a rare occurrence in pantomime history. How did it alter the dynamics of the performance? Did Cinderella throw the glass slipper in Prince Charming's face and scream: "Go and pour your grande latte into that!" Once the audience had shattered the illusion, the players might as well all have come out of character to defend the honour of Lowestoft.

As the whole town seems by this stage to have been in the know, the rest of the cast should have arranged some surprises for Mr Woodgate. Cinderella could have entered pregnant for her final scene and told him: "Didn't you know I'm from Lowestoft?" The fairy godmother could have been a hoodie for the night.

None of that would have been that far removed from the spirit of pantomime, leaning as the art form always does on current events. In a strange way, booing Prince Charming is worse. That small act of revenge blurred all distinction between actor and character. Often in pantomime the distinction is blurred between the character in the panto and the TV character of the actor in question, and the catchphrase of one is lent to the other. But it's less common to see a blurring of the character and the personality and actions of the actor in real life.

What did the small children in the audience make of the handsome, heroic fairy-tale prince getting abuse from the stalls? They will probably have bad dreams and grow up confused. They might even become hoodies.

Watch the master at work

Kenneth Branagh's career has been largely concentrated on stage and the big screen. But what a magnificent TV actor he is. That much is certain from his Sunday night performances in Wallander, and it's the reason that I shall be sure not to miss the programme on BBC1 tomorrow night.

In his portrayal of the moody Swedish detective, Branagh catches with great poignancy a man at that moment in his life when difficulties with job, friendship, love life, an ailing parent and a daughter needing help with big decisions all converge on an already existential angst. There is no fire or overt emotion in him, yet somehow he conveys that his struggle to make sense of the world gets no easier as he gets older. It's masterful acting, and, for all his many triumphs in theatre and cinema, this is the role that will, I suspect, become the one that he will be best remembered for.

So who's been taking the Michael?

If there were an award for the thinnest person ever to appear on the West End stage it would go to Keira Knightley. Certainly her weight or lack of it in her stage debut in Molière's The Misanthrope seemed to take up most of the interval conversation around me when I caught up with the production this week.

Knightley's stage debut, playing an empty-headed film star, is a creditable and convincing one in a hugely enjoyable modern adaptation scripted by Martin Crimp. I was particularly intrigued by the character of the critic, a smarmy, narcissistic creep whom Crimp calls Covington. Knightley's character describes him as a "dead white male" who will "admire any young woman who takes her clothes off in front of the camera".

As several reviewers have pointed out, the name Covington seems to be an amalgam of two esteemed newspaper theatre critics, Michaels Coveney and Billington. It's a tricky one for them. Do they sue? Or do they take the allusion to hot bloodedness as a compliment?

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