For the past six months my fellow reviewers have been urging me to go to the Rock’n’Roll Pantomime at the City Varieties which they all said was a brilliant annual event. Guess what – it is.
When I got there the stage looked magnificent and took me back to when my parents would take me to the Empire and the Grand on our annual pilgrimage. I even have a hazy memory of my grandmother taking me to see one at the Theatre Royal. None of them was remotely like the production I saw last night. It was definitely a Panto for the 21st Century. Gone was the Principal Boy, played by a woman, although thankfully the Dame, played by a man, was still very much in evidence.
For the benefit of my readers who are not from the UK I must take a moment to point out that there is nothing in the least bit creepy about this arrangement, well not much, pantomime is a long British tradition and to explain it would be like trying to impart the rules of cricket. I am afraid that you will just have to bear with me or have a look on Youtube where I am sure that there are lots of examples.
The first thing when going to a pantomime is that you deposit every shred of dignity you have in the cloakroom along with your overcoat, you are far better off without either. Quite a lot of the adult members of the audience had even decided to leave it at home for safe keeping as they were dressed in an array of Christmas Jumpers bearing images of Yuletide icons and the odd risqué slogan.
I was seated smack in the middle of the auditorium which was OK except that the press gang had been allocated seats scattered throughout the stalls so I found myself to be a seventy-year-old man sitting alone amidst a sea of families with young children. For a while I felt a bit uncomfortable when, fortunately, a woman I know from my theatregoing took her place two seats away. There was no one in the chair between us so at least I could share a laugh and not appear to be the city pervert. I was soon put even more at ease when another of my acquaintances, her daughter, and two young granddaughters sat in front of me and we started to chat. Finally I got the ultimate ‘welcome to the Panto’ gesture as I saw another writer take his seat at the front of the house, he turned round and waved at me so in response I held my hand up to acknowledge his greeting and one of the girls in front high-fived me. Priceless.
Right then, on to the show. I will begin with a summary of the plot. OK, now that is done I can get down to the production. Seriously, we all know the story of Little Red Riding Hood, but it doesn’t matter as liberties were taken with it in that we had Bo Peep, played by Rachel Garnett and Little Miss Muffet, Laura Sillett, as well as the eponymous heroine but we don’t need a plot in a Pantomime just goodies to cheer, baddies to boo, a villain, a hero, a love interest and a Dame to hold everything together, everything else is mere frippery.
In this production we had two villains, Lupus the Wolf and Sir Jasper de Ville – de Ville by name and de Ville by nature – see what they did there? They were both played by Ben Stratton who mixed the menace with a few asides and comedy moments but basically he was a foil for the jeers from the audience. His two incompetent assistants were Dodgit (Lana Walker) and Bodgit (Mike Slader) who appeared in several guises each being more inept than the last. At one point they were French chefs so that they could fit in as many crepe puns as possible, and when I say crepe I mean just that. The show was opened in both halves by Claire Greenway as Fairy Cherry Blossom, obviously a very polished performance – Oh no! I am getting as bad as them – to set out the plot, and then at the end to wrap things up. We also had a bonus in a semi-villain, not quite as evil as the other two but well worth a boo whenever he came on, and that was Jack Frost played by Kenny Davies who also doubled as Ruffles, not a villain but the Prince’s servant, see next paragraph.
On to the heroes – loud cheers all round. First was Prince Florizel Fortunate played by Ben Mabberley. He was the heir to the throne but had disguised himself as a woodcutter – cue copious chopper jokes – called Wally – cue copious Wally jokes – so that he could mingle with the common folk, but he fitted in about as well as Jacob Rees-Mogg might at a meeting of the Castleford Tigers Supporters Club. He is employed as a Forrester by Grandma Millicent Merry, the Dame of the piece, who was played Simon Nock, where he falls in love with Red Riding Hood, Lucy Keirl, her granddaughter. Now who would have guessed that that was coming?
Not only did all of the above thespians play their parts but, as this is a Rock’n’Roll Panto, they also played instruments in the band, and very well too. The tunes ranged from Chris De Burgh, but don’t let that put you off, to Nirvana with all stops in-between, including Sweet Caroline which I should imagine it is illegal to leave out of a show like this.
The actors were all superb but special mention must go to Simon Nock as Grandma. According to my colleagues he has played here several time before to great acclaim but who took a break from which he has thankfully returned as he was absolutely superb. His jokes were perfectly pitched with the more ‘adult’ humour flying over the children’s heads and the corny jokes for the younger ones timed and executed to a tee. He had the audience in the palm of his had for the whole show, including the hapless Steve who was picked on right from the start and dragged into the proceedings at various stages. Again this was done extremely well being suggestive but not insulting or embarrassing. Everyone’s singing and dancing was very good and the whole thing put together to a very high standard by Director Rob Salmon. The Panto was written, it says in the programme, by Peter Rowe – sorry – who constructed the action and dialogue superbly. The list of the Production Team is longer than the Brexit process so I would just like to thank them all for their brilliant work on this show. The lighting and sound perfectly set the mood of elation and threat and the costumes and sets were excellent.
This was my first visit to the Panto in thirty-five years but needless to say I will be back again next year now that I have got the bug – Oh! yes I have. The only thing which spoilt the evening was that, being an old duffer whose short-term memory is shot, I think that I came away without collecting my dignity from the cloakroom on the way out. I don’t think that anyone will notice.
Red Riding Hood runs until Sunday, 12th January 2020
For details and bookings please go to https://www.cityvarieties.co.uk/Online/default.asp
Unless otherwise stated all photographs are by Ant Robling