(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 8 December)
This year’s seasonal production boasts another of Andrew Pollard’s intelligently ear-engaging scripts; this time he and director Eleanor Rhode have tweaked the familiar story to produce what one might describe as pared-down panto. The format works very well, with a predominantly schools audience at the performance which I saw being thoroughly engrossed in the story’s nuances.
We’re in fin de siècle Paris. Spice merchant M Marzipan (Neil Stewart) needs to replenish his stock of sugar urgently, but he lacks the cash to do so until his ship (literally) comes home. In the meantime his younger daughter Soufflé (Jill McAusland) is spending money at luxury boutiques regardless, while his sister Amorette (Arabella Rodrigo) has her nose in a book most of the time.
Also in need of sugar is sweet-vendor Betty Bonbon (Terence Frisch) – you are going to learn quite a lot of French when she’s on stage. Frisch is an experienced Dame, one who knows just how to milk an audience, whatever its age group. Stewart plays well off him, notably in the second-act slop scene – well, you try making a sugarless cake! The point is that the majority of the characters come over as people, not just types.
Manipulating the action is the nasty Spite (Hollie Cassar), a witch of the first water who can put over a nifty tap-dance as well as her songs. Trying to counter her is Charlie Cupid (Dale Mathurin), a demi-god who would rather be an ordinary mortal. As I said, there are novel twists in this version of the story. Cursed by Spite, it’s no wonder that Robbie Smith’s Beast has grown morose and vengeful.
Cleo Petitt’s sets and costumes work well, with slightly distorted angles to the Beast/Prince’s castle and a clever black-theatre sequence when Marzipan and Bonbon find themselves at the castle, thanks to Cupid. This tytpe of staging proves that you don’t necessarily need a song-and-dance ensemble or a juvenile troupe to fill the stage. After all, theatre is magic – and when more so than at Christmas?
Beauty and the Beast runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 312 January. Check the theatre website (watfordpalacetheatre.co.uk) for performance times.
(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 7 October)
Like director Brigid Larmour, this is a Shavian comedy which seems not to have been in my theatre-going orbit for decades. For all that it seems to have drifted out of fashion, it’s a play well worth reviving, and Larmour does it proud with a cast that knows what it’s about and intriguing, somewhat minimalist sets by Rebecca Brower. It’s briskly paced, but the activity is never cumbersome.
Hannah Morrish’s Raina sets the tone from the opening scene with her mother Catherine (Kathryn O’Reilly) and Jill McAusland’s pert maid Louka. Enter the fugitive Captain Bluntschli, to whom Pete Ashmore gives a dash of derring-do as well as Swiss pragmatism. He and Morrish play beautifully off each other throughout. Raina, of course, thinks she is in love with the dashing cavalry officer Sergius (Assad Zaman).
This is another well thought-out performance, edging dangerously towards the over-blown but always reined in short of it. Walter van Dyk’s Major Peckoff is just the sort of patriarch that his womenfolk manipulate with ease. McAusland deepens her own characterisation in her exchanges with David Webber’s Nicola; this authoritative Black actor adds an interesting dimension to his creed of how to survive as a servant.
Music and sound is by Arun Ghosh, never obstrusive but nderpinning the setting of one of that sequence of Balkan conflicts which peppered the late 19th century. It all ends, as in a Shakespeare comedy, with a dance choreographed by Jack Murphy. The audience just has to sit back, look and listen. And enjoy the experience.
Arms and the Man runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 22 October with matinées on 8, 12, 15, 20 and 22 October.
(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 11 December 2015)
Andrew Pollard is the author of this year’s home-grown pantomime at the Palace Theatre, Watford. In one sense, this Dick Whittington is a pared-down production with a total cast of seven and a three-piece led by musical director Andy Ralls band perched high above Cleo Pettitt’s bright sets. But that doesn’t mean that we feel in the least bit short-changed.
Our hero is played by Joseph Prwen, escaping from Watford (where else?) and his domineering mum (Terence Frisch as Mrs Whittington) in search of fame and the fortune suggested by the myth of London’s gold-paved streets. London has been taken over by rats as the drop curtain makes clear. You can pick out Currant Cakey’s Globe Theatre, the down-river HP Sauce Bridge and the new National Rail Planning HQ (formerly the Tower of London).
Dick encounters a stray Tabby Cat, to whose feline features Aveta Chen’s delicate oriental face is admirably adapted. Her gestures are in keeping as she mimes, dances and rat-catches her way into Alderman Fitzwarren (Walter van Dyk)’s cheese emporium. Dick has by this time fallen head over heels with free-spending Alice Fitzwarren (Jill McAusland). No wonder Fitzwarren is running out of money as well as stock.
You don’t want to meddle with Erica Guyett’s Queen Rat. A thoroughly piratical person for whom apparently Fairy Bowbells (Arabella Rodrigo) is no match. One thing which this type of pantomime allows is a deeper development of each character than is often the case, and director Brigid Larmour allows proper space for this. So Dick changes gradually from someone to whom things happen to a person who solves problems.
Frisch plays one of those no-nonsense types of Dame, from the first lollipop lady entrance onwards. There’s more to van Dyk’s alderman and his relationship with the daughter he loves but who also irritates him than we are usually allowed to fathom. Not that the traditional gags are missing; the ghost scene involves a white rabbit (Welsh rarebit) and the song-sheet is, most appropriately, “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner”. The silver and salmon costumes for the walk-down look gorgeous.
Dick Whittington runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 2 January.