You can’t beat a Cinderella or an Aladdin, but it is good to see modern pantomimes branching out into new stories while preserving the tried and trusted features of traditional panto. Pinocchio is hardly a new story, but it certainly gets a new treatment in this entertaining production. The script is by the Society’s musical director, Lee Redwood, who proves as talented with words as he is with notes. The story flows well and the jokes are good – and not always corny. Much imagination and innovation has also gone into the direction by Rachel Leggett and Matt Tyler; inevitably, some of the new ideas work better than others, but those that work well work very well indeed.
The performances for the most part match the standard of the script and the principals’ singing is of a high standard. A wife is invented for Geppetto the toymaker, because every panto must have a Dame, and Phil Redgrave fills that role admirably. He makes a splendid Dame when things are going right, but his particular gift is the quick wit and talent for ad libbing that he shows when things go wrong. There is a clever but complicated scene with Geppetto near the start of Act 2, so complicated that it went badly awry, but the ad libs were almost funnier than the script. He is the first pantomime Dame I have seen appear in a fat suit and bikini – an X-rated sight if ever there was one.
Trish Ruff makes a sympathetic Fairy Stardust in a dress like a blue meringue and her ‘Nobody loves a fairy when she’s forty’ is a highlight. The villain is the circus-owner, Stromboli, in a long red tail-coat and with enough padding to make him look nine months pregnant; Lee Neal plays him with gusto, relishing the audience’s boos. Jiminy Cricket is the Buttons character here (there’s one in every panto) and Alice Weller brings terrific energy and likeability to the role. Bob Tyler’s performance as Geppetto would benefit from rather more light and shade. Two actresses are sharing the title role and, on opening night, Kiera Spraggan was particularly impressive in putting across the physical floppiness of a puppet. Her Act 1 make-up really doesn’t work, but how else do you convey (spoiler alert) the transformation from puppet to real boy?
The chorus, including several children, work hard and contribute hugely to the success of the production. They sing and move well, and the three young lead dancers are exceptionally good; they must have been a pleasure for choreographer Gemma Davis to work with. On the subject of youngsters, there are mature and confident performances from Alfie Matthews as Fabrizio the Fox and a particularly self-assured Olivia Leggett as Catriona the Cat. They are Stromboli’s henchmen, and why they should be a fox and a cat is never explained – but this is panto, so it really doesn’t matter.
The audience on the first night was disappointingly sparse, but the volume of their responses showed how much they were enjoying themselves. This show deserves better houses for its remaining performances: 14 February at 7.30pm and 15 February at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.