Monday, 17 December 2018

Traditional tales still have feelgood factor

IT’S panto season once again — that crazy time of year where the highest heels and the brightest dresses, hair and make-up are generally to be found on the men onstage

IT’S panto season once again — that crazy time of year where the highest heels and the brightest dresses, hair and make-up are generally to be found on the men onstage.

We headed off to two highly enjoyable local delights — the first an intimate venue with a recreation of the story of

Sleeping Beauty
, the second a larger production of

Dick Whittington
, featuring some swashbuckling household names, both with some memorable high camp.

South Hill Park’s

Sleeping Beauty
won my two sons over from the very start with a moving train set around the balcony — the story being introduced to us from a toy shop setting.

We were soon in the thick of things amid a near-full house and I found the pace, comedy, music, costumes, props and choreography to be seamless. The requisite cheesy panto lines were there and a sign was held up that said “BNAG” — which was “bang out of order”.

The tension was built up as the tale unravelled, where baby Aurora is cursed so that upon her 16th birthday she will prick her finger on a spinning wheel and fall into a deep sleep.

She is spirited away to live in hiding while the health and safety (elf and safety?) experts remove anything pointy in sight and she then returns to the fold on the eve of her birthday to meet her fate.

Each character brought a little something special and there was a great spark between the hilarious Maude Littlewood (Julian Hirst, dame and director) and his sister, the evil witch Morgana (Jennifer Greenwood), who brought a truly fantastic evil squeal along with her great singing voice (emulated by my younger son Nate at one point).

They were aided and abetted by the princess, Aurora (Kelly Agredo), the Prince (Owen Liggett), the King (Ben Ashton) and the metamorphosing Perrault (Guy Freeman) — not forgetting an ensemble of talented children playing dragonflies, ladybirds and butterflies among other things.

There was a feelgood factor throughout and the tunes were really melodious with great singing. The crescendo of the piece was a splendid dragon, with brilliant lighting and smoke effects, while the camaraderie between Maude and Perrault, including a fab skit based on

Where’s Wally?
kept things on the bright side. This was a warmhearted show with feeling.

Available at a discount when you book alongside this panto, South Hill Park is also running Father Christmas’s Grotto.

We were well looked-after by an elf helper or two who got the kids to decorate a snowman and penguin to put on Father Christmas’s tree and we were then ushered into a fabulous mock-up of a little house.

There was great attention to detail (parents provide pertinent information in advance) with a fireplace, a

Book of Good Girls and Boys
and a photo opportunity.

The whole thing felt carefully crafted, sedate and non-commercial, although make sure to take some readies as it was cash only at the till. My elder son Milo had been a trifle doubtful at first, but following our visit he declared he’d been relieved to see it was the real Father Christmas. (Me too!)

To the Hexagon next, where

Dick Whittington
was brought to us by another troupe of colourful characters. The whole cast again put their hearts into this and were led by Sarah the Cook (Paul Morse) and local boy done good Justin Fletcher as Idle Jack.

Justin, sorry, Jack’s arrival was greeted with glee as the kids all knew who he was. Dick Whittington (children’s TV presenter Kerry Newell), accompanied by Tommy the cat (Becky Stone), heads from Reading to London to see if the streets really are paved with gold — but finds it is actually infested with rats led by the cantankerous King Rat (Jamie Sheerman) and his sidekick Stinky (Alex Ranahan).

These two dastardly fellows and their punky gang of kids were offset by a sparkling Fairy Bowbells (Anna Mitcham) and an upbeat, balletic dance ensemble.

Dick tries to find work with Alderman Fitzwarren (William Finkenrath) and falls for his daughter, Alice (Anna Mitcham again) but is thwarted by King Rat, who frames Dick so that he needs to prove himself to the Alderman.

We are taken on an adventure sailing on a ship to Morocco with lots of gaiety, impressive props and harmonies on the way.

This included a chefs’ lesson in custard pie-making with Sarah the Cook and Idle Jack, a phosphorescent underwater ensemble, and some ghostly acrobatics and panto banter when everyone was washed up on the shore.

The cast received a warm welcome from the people of Reading and the Hexagon was pretty packed. The audience got pulled in from the start, with one gentleman, Lyle, ending up on stage in the “naughty corner”.

The slapstick between Sarah and Jack was fab, while there were some catchy ditties and phrases.

It was quite a long panto, although it bounced along enjoyably and built up the momentum. There was plenty for all to enjoy, and enjoy they did.

My kids and I were chuffed to have experienced both pantos — the first bringing an ethereal otherworldliness and the second being full of showbiz pizzazz.


Sleeping Beauty
had a gruff, Les Dawson-style dame,

Dick Whittington
’s was more sleek Paul O’Grady.

Both shows were packed with all the old chestnuts such as “He’s behind you!” and invitations to sing and shout along, and it was great to take my little ones to experience this bonkers English tradition.

Review: Natalie Aldred

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