(From L-R) Aaron Campbell, Andrew Pollard as Tsarina Bertha, Lucy Andic in Sleeping Beauty, Greenwich Theatre. Photo: Robert Day
This was my first pantomime of the year – I am planning to see a dozen or so – and it is unlikely that I will see a better one. Once again, Greenwich Theatre and Andrew Pollard hit the target with a fraction of the budget of the big commercial pantos – and do so with the usual winning mix of traditional pantomime routines and innovative story lines. Pollard writes scripts for a number of theatres around the country, and with his returning regular cast and eye for new talent, he has built a great reputation at Greenwich but gets far less press coverage than the other London shows.
For his 13th panto script at Greenwich, Pollard returns to the title that began his reign there, Sleeping Beauty. It’s a more popular title these days but mercifully shorn of all Disney reference here, Pollard using an eclectic mix of pop tunes and talking the trouble to rewrite the lyrics. It’s always interesting to see where the 100 years’ time span will be set, but on this occasion the falling asleep happens in the 1860s and the reawakening neatly coincides with the rebirth of the forgotten Greenwich Theatre in 1969, exactly fifty years ago. Even more neatly, our hero is not a Prince but young Scots actor Ewan Hooper, who did so much to get the theatre reopened. Not that much of that detail will register with the younger members of the audience; they will just enjoy the anarchic possibilities that follow.
The four piece ensemble are given lots to do with frequent gender switches, as well a sizeable role for the energetic and hard-working Eli Caldwell as Swedish au pair Bjorn, almost playing the Muddles role, but fully living up to the Greenwich reputation for young men in unfeasibly tight shorts. As Ewan, Regan Burke nicely channels charm, determination and naivety opposite the Anastasia of Esme Bacalla-Hayes, who does well to create such a sympathetic and believable character despite not appearing till halfway through.
The exuberant Fairy Faberge (Funlola Olufunwa) adds a novel touch to the panto call and response repertoire by asking us to respond to her in Russian (to the delight of the eastern European family behind me), for this version of the story is setting in the Tsar’s Russia and the hero will have to break through ice rather than cutting through thorns. Olufunwa also deftly leads the songsheet with Pollard, both of them getting the audience on their side and with no sign of the tired old Twelve Days of Christmas routine – there can be no other panto audience this year singing Black Pudding Bertha, the Queen of Northern Soul.
The Tsar, Ivan the Slightly Irritable, is played by ever-reliable Greenwich regular, Martin Johnston. He wrings everything he can out of what is usually the thankless King/Emperor/Baron role, largely a plot device in so many scripts; and many of the more hilarious set-pieces would be less effective without him as the straight man. The evening belongs however to writer and director Andrew Pollard as the Tsarina Bertha (originally from Bolton) and Anthony Spargo, panto villain supreme, as Rasputin. Spargo has the elusive ability to be truly evil without being at all frightening, mostly as a result of his evident stupidity. It is no easy task to get this right, and this exquisite performance is equally successful with adults and children. Pollard, of course, needs no introduction to Greenwich audiences where he is an essential part of Christmas for so many families. This year his definitive and glorious Dame once again hits all the spots and even adds flying to her repertoire.
The combination of Pollard as Director, Steve Markwick as MD (who knows the importance of underscoring and percussion in panto) and Cleo Pettit as Designer is firmly established now, and this year the sets continue to amaze, even including two staircases on this difficult stage. Some of the routines are glorious recreations from panto history, particularly the Tsar’s bedroom with candles that disappear, a sliding bed and pictures that come to life or in which a ship can sink. The scene is a great reminder for some of the likes of the Jewell and Warriss Haunted Bedroom scene that toured for years; but it just works as it is for the majority of the audience. Pollard brings back humanettes this year too, these long-forgotten puppets using human heads and hands forming a trio of babies in a scene that will delight the children who normally fill this theatre (the Press Night audience needed a few more of them).
I will look forward to seeing a wide range of pantos this year, from the large commercial productions costing many hundreds of thousands (and with ticket prices to match) to the other local London shows, but I will surprised if any of them match the invention, verve and originality of Andrew Pollard and his expert team. Get your tickets now – it’s likely to be a sell-out.
(From L-R) Esme Bacalla-Hayes, Eden Mclean-Elliott, Regan Burke as Ewan, Lucy Andic, Aaron Campbell in Sleeping Beauty, Greenwich Theatre. Photo: Robert Day