Photos: Pamela Raith Photography
Over the years the Marlowe Theatre pantomime, usually the first I see in the season, has become the gold standard against which I measure the rest of the season’s offerings. This time director/writer Paul Hendy and Evolution Pantomimes, with this fine account of Mother Goose (braver choice than some, perhaps) have surpassed even their own habitual excellence. Platinum standard?
So what makes it stand out? For a start there’s the wonderful music director Chris Wong who this year makes a proper, glitzy onstage appearance. Crikey, can that man can play the guitar and what an inspiration to focus so much of the music on Beatles tunes.
Then there’s the gloriously fresh script full of local, topical references and some magnificent puns. “How many eggs should you eat in France? One egg is un oeuf, thanks.” And Hendy knows exactly how to manage his Canterbury family audience: there’s an existentialism joke but smutty, lavatorial gags are gloriously conspicuous by their absence. And if you’re going to feature three make-you-gasp stunt motorcyclists defying gravity in a giant hamster ball then don’t present it as weary bolt-on – knit it into the script as Hendy does with verve.
The top-notch cast at the heart of this, however, are what really makes this panto purr along. Ben Roddy is celebrating ten years as the Marlowe dame since, he took it over from the late, much missed Dave Lee. The script makes great play with this anniversary but underneath the humour it’s a treat to see how Roddy has developed and now has a delightful dame personality all of his own. And the advantage of having a core local cast is that he and the rubber bodied, hilarious Lloyd Hollett work together like a pair of scissor blades – complimenting and slicing against each other to create splendid comedy.
Marc Pickering is a deliciously camp, excessive but very funny baddie in the form of Demon Vanity, preening with mirrors, pulling extraordinary faces and demonstrating just how to time words and action for maximum effect. Jenna Russell is an enjoyably assertive Fairy Goodfeather and Dr Ranj (a media medic in his first panto) is fun as Charlie Goose.
It is unusual – but very welcome - to have a serious message in a pantomime. Presumably as a thoughtful response to current concerns about mental health, body image obsession and so on, Roddy’s Mother Goose chooses, once wealth arrives in the form of the golden eggs, to go for radical makeover. Result? She starts to be nasty to people. It’s all ultimately resolved but not before every child and adult in the audience has been made to think about bullying, unkindness and what really matters. A panto with depth? Hurrah. Let’s have more of this in the mix.
The lighting (designed by Peter Harrison) and special effects in this panto are lovely too. The proscenium is framed in a series of trellis rectangles which light up in different colours and I loved the way he lit the motorcyclists. Helga Wood’s costumes are another triumph They’re better than ever – especially the scene in which the ensemble wear lots of dramatic white feathers. “Three years at Italia Conti and they dress you up as a chicken!” quips Roddy’s Mother Goose.
This really is one not to be missed. And I’m already looking forward to next year’s Jack in the Beanstalk at the Marlowe.