The writers of the show say in the programme: ‘Whilst every effort has been made to stick to Daniel Defoe’s story, we have exercised a certain amount of artistic licence in our interpretation’, to which the only possible response is: ‘You’re not kidding!’ They have imported cannibals (whose leader must be in line for the award for the best invented name in this year’s pantomimes: Chief Chewsumupanspitsumoutum), pirates, a talking parrot and a Man Friday who has returned to his island on a gap year after finishing his degree at Oxford. And such liberties matter not a bit, since they achieve the aim of creating a colourful, entertaining and amusing show.
Two of the most conservative groups in the world are children (especially where the traditions and routines of Christmas are concerned), and the inhabitants of Swanage, so those who stage the town’s annual panto are obliged to stick with a formula that has been well tried and tested over the years. By now, they have become very good at it, as this year’s offering shows.
One of the most essential elements in that comforting feeling of familiarity is Brian Travers in the role of the dame yet again. He plays the audience like willingly hooked fish and creates triumphs from minor disasters such as forgotten lines or prop malfunctions. And to sing ‘Where is love?’ from Oliver! as amusingly badly as he does takes some skill. Claire Leyman-Hobbs is as brave and resourceful as the title role demands, while Rosemary Horn plays the love interest (Britney Peveril-Point) with initiative as well as charm; she has a good singing voice, too. Ro Smith is an accomplished comedienne and (despite acting with one arm in a sling) shows her skills as Robinson’s brother, Kevin. James Chelton huffs and puffs to good effect as Squire Peveril-Point. Tom Eastcott-Jones is a suave Man Friday and there is a nice cameo from Tracey Lerche-Lerchenborg as Bubbly Babs the barmaid.
If there is a weak link, it is perhaps the pirates: Redbeard and his sidekicks, Guppy and Plankton. They have some good lines and business, which less shouting, clearer diction and a sharper pace would show to greater advantage.
There is a large chorus of youngsters, more than usual of them boys: perhaps the animal skins of cannibals hold more attractions than the satin shirts of the customary villagers or peasants. How good it would be if some of them were bitten by the stage bug and helped to address the chronic shortage of men suffered by most amateur societies. Directing a chorus of children is a huge challenge on top of everything else that has to go into such a production, and great credit goes to Victoria Jones for her imagination and hard work. A good proportion of the children also take part in the effective ‘underwater ballet’, choreographed by Amanda Eastcott-Jones, that ends act 1.
The songs, generally well-performed, are drawn from sources as various as Madness, Gilbert & Sullivan and (memorably) Village People. It is a challenging show for sound effects, but a loud splash coming just before something is thrown into the sea is part of the fun and an opportunity for an ad lib reaction from the more quick-witted of the cast.
The sets are excellent and there are some spectacularly well-painted backcloths. The programme does not list them as having been bought in, so those named under ‘Set construction and painting’ – Brian Travers, Lennon Yates, Thomas Curtis, Harry Groves and Jonathan Searle – should take a bow.
Future performances: 6 and 13 January at 2.00 and 7.30, 12 January at 7.30.