For the first time, my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind and I found ourselves in the curious position of seeing a traditional panto staged by the Final Year Acting Students of the University of Northampton. With panto seemingly as strong as ever in the affections of the British public, it makes perfect sense for the Acting Students to be put through their panto paces and learn the necessary skills for this most fun-based, and regular-incomed, of all stage entertainments. Oh no it doesn’t? Oh yes it does.
9.45 am is probably the earliest I’ve ever seen a stage production kick off, and that’s even after four years of rigorous attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time of day a gentleman of my years might not be quite so open to outrageous ugly sisters and hard-up barons; but not so for the 60-odd attendees from a local primary school, who were young enough to be totally entranced by the magic of panto, but also old enough to reject sub-standard performance and material. So, quite a tricky demand on the actors.
Things were perhaps a little slow to start whilst the young audience were working out in their heads at what point they should respond to what was happening on stage and how loudly they should be doing it. Let’s face it, that’s a skill that many adults don’t possess. Bryony Ditchburn’s enchanting Fairy Godmother opens the show to set the scene of fairyland, and to introduce us to our sad slave of a scullery maid, Cinderella, played by Ceara Coveney. Ms Coveney gives a kindly, winning performance; her caring for the hungry mouse shows just how kind and thoughtful she is. She also blossoms stunningly into the Princess Crystal (not that she was given that name in this version).
On their first appearance, Chloe Hoffmeister’s sprightly and spirited Dandini faces the task of cheering up Zoe Mayall’s Prince Charming, which she does by means of an earwormingly irritating song about Charming Cheese that remains stuck in my head several hours later. I think Ms Mayall is at a disadvantage by playing a character down in the dumps at this early stage, because we were wanting a really lively kick-start to the show to capture our attention, but instead we got a gloomy prince. However, her interaction with the audience does improve and we do share in her delight at finding someone who will love her for who she (he) is, and not just because of her title – a nice moral message there.
The arrival of the Ugly Sisters really perks up the show. Elouise (Mo Samuels) and Ermintrude (Chris Tyler), argue petulantly much to the delight of the kids, who were more than prepared to boo them at the drop of a hat. Mr Samuels performs Elouise as a graceless lout but who just might turn winsome if the right prince were to come along at the right time. Mr Tyler’s Ermintrude is a rough-as-guts, dumb-bell wielding, date from hell who gives us lots of well-executed and funny pratfalls. Their wallpaper pasting scene is definitely the highlight of the show, both of them throwing themselves (literally) into getting stuck in the paste and terrifying the kids with the prospect of getting a bucket of water thrown over them – (relax, it doesn’t happen.)
Alexandra Pienaru really accentuates the wicked with her portrayal of Cinderella’s stepmother, all ghastly wig and screechy bossiness. It’s a good, fun performance and she handled her two (yes two, that’s unfortunate) wardrobe malfunctions with effortless ease, striking up an off-the-cuff conversation with the audience whilst backstage sought a pair of scissors to cut her out of her first costume. I enjoyed Oliver Franks’ performance as Buttons, coming over as an extremely likeable bloke (I feel I should let Buttons know that the good guys never get the girl). He did have a slight tendency to rush a few of his lines; whether that was sheer nerves at the sight of all those kids (can’t blame him) or eagerness to get through the exposition so that we could get to the physical comedy quicker, I don’t know.
Hal Gallagher’s very laid-back Baron Hardup is almost too subtle and underplayed for us to appreciate the characterisation, and sadly the custard pie sequence didn’t really work, because there wasn’t really any purpose to it. However, Tiffany Mae Rivers and Liza Swart strike just the right note as the Brokers’ Men Mutt and Jeff, making the most of their scene-changing duties, and gaining an excellent rapport with the kids who were on their side right from the start. Perhaps the most memorable pairing of the show is the hilarious dancing between the enormous Mr Samuels and the diminutive Ms Swart. The spirit of Little and Large lives on.
The kids clearly loved it, and a very funny and festive atmosphere abounded. Good work, Third Year Actors, this was a tough ask and you rose to the challenge!