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Beau Jest – The Panto

Paul Reakes is the modern master of pantomime, the author not only of traditional scripts but of new ideas such as productions based on Dick Turpin and Sinbad the Sailor. Perhaps his bravest creative leap is Beau Jest, which bears little resemblance to P C Wren’s original story of the Foreign Legion but tells of Timmy Trundle, wrongly accused of theft, who joins the Legion to forget (yes, the “To forget what?” “I’ve forgotten” joke is in there) and is followed to Africa by his brother, mother and sweetheart.

If there are modern masters of pantomime in the local area, the Burley Players would have a pretty good claim to the title. Their productions are nearly always of a high quality and their pantomimes are a particular treat. Beau Jest keeps up the standard or even raises it still higher and features all the elements of a traditional panto, including a chase (cue the Dick Barton music) and much audience participation, not least the obligatory song. One of the benefits of Reakes’s scripts is that there are plenty of chances to slip in topical and local references – what did Bransgore do to earn such mockery from its near-neighbours?

A stalwart of Burley pantos is Sharon Street as the cheeky-chappie clown, here as Toby Trundle, Timmy’s dozy brother – one of the better jokes is the throwaway reference to her as Jean Claude van Dimme – and doing her usual excellent job of holding the whole thing together. Timmy himself is Katy Perriman, graduating to principal boy after a couple of years as principal girl and wearing the essential fishnet tights (I have seen a pantomime with the principal boy wearing jeans – sacrilege!), although they call for some interesting adaptations to the regulation legionnaire’s uniform. Taking over as principal girl is Ruby-Angel Clement, who is not only pretty but no mean actor, with a charming smile and a lovely singing voice, heard at its best in ‘You’re The One That I Want’ – she’s one to watch.

Bruce Clitherow is a classic pantomime dame and throws himself endearingly into the part with his prat falls, green or orange plaits, malapropisms and rapport with the audience. The show is generous with its villains, providing three excellent examples of the species: John West is a convincing bully and coward as Silas Slimy, Steve MacTaggart dominates the stage as the desert chieftain, Bac-Ali, and Sergeant Scar (Simon Newns) has come straight from the Pirbright parade ground. By contrast, Tabitha, Toby Trundle’s love interest (Vicky Freer), is clearly on a temporary break from being captain of her girls’ school’s hockey 1st XI.

Sandy Simpson and Carly Salmon deserve an honourable mention for what must be hot work as Camilla the Camel, and a special shout-out for the junior chorus. They have a lot to do but perform it with such obvious enthusiasm and enjoyment, not to mention no little talent, that the future of the Burley Players panto a generation or two ahead seems to be in safe hands.

The action takes place in front of colourful and imaginative backcloths and is accompanied by sterling work on piano and percussion by Sonia Foulds and Graeme Thew respectively.

Just occasionally, there were lapses in the pace and timing, but they served as reminders of how slick the production is overall. Full credit to director Annie McTaggart and her team for laying on such a professional and thoroughly enjoyable show.

Future performances: 30 January at 7.30pm, 31 January at 7.30pm, and 1 February at 2.00pm and 7.30pm.