The Pied Piper of Hamelin is an unusual subject for a pantomime, but Alayn P Frayn’s script, in taking the familiar story and hanging on it all the traditions of panto, works well. The gags come fast and furious, with a good Donald Trump joke and one scene consisting almost entirely of pig-based jokes (eg. What do you get if you cross a pig and a flea? Pork scratchings). The fact that the story is set in Germany is a gift, as the German language always sounds faintly comical to an Englishman.
If you are adding panto traditions to a story, the first priority is a dame, in this case Helga von Trump. A dame who is too feminine can be disconcerting; the best of them are believable as women but never let the audience forget what is actually under those striped bloomers. Colin Hobbs gets this balance just right and holds the show together. He is particularly good at running the audience-participation song. In general, the audience have a whale of a time, reacting enthusiastically and enjoying especially the moments when things go wrong, but one of the skills of a modern panto actor is the control of the increasing number of audience members who become a little too enthusiastic, especially after the interval.
Vicky Freer, as Pippin the piper, is a strong and watchable actor, as well as no mean piccolo player. As Willie, Helga’s son, Sharon Street is likeable and game, with echoes of Wee Jimmy Krankie in her performance. The love interest is provided by Hans (Pam Berry) and Heidi (Katy Perriman), who make the best of a rather thankless task as their romance is very peripheral and doesn’t really lead anywhere.
There has to be a comic duo – I always think of them as the broker’s men and often find them the weakest part of a panto, but in this case Veronica Johnstone and Sue Trotter are rat-catchers, work well together and raise at least their share of laughs. Simon Newns is a dominating stage presence as the Burgomeister, with good facial expressions.
Deborah Nightingale and Jackie Reynolds are effective as, respectively, the good fairy (Fairy Strudel), spreading sweetness and light, and the bad fairy (Sour-Kraut), oozing equal amounts of malevolence. Sour-Kraut’s evil lieutenant and chief rat, Rat-Worst, is played well by Richard Pratt; I don’t want him to be whisked off to the Tower, and it may not have been intentional, but he is both facially and vocally reminiscent of Prince Charles.
The direction by Sandy Simpson and Mary Turner is not particularly adventurous, but then it has neither the need nor the space to be so. The sets are excellent, especially the painted backcloths – the one in the sewers seems alarmingly authentic – and the scene changes are slickly done.
There are not many solos, but they reveal Pam Berry and Jackie Reynolds as having noticeably good singing voices. The chorus is hard-working and enthusiastic, including a number of children who double (treble?) as villagers, pigs and rats. The singing of the chorus is excellent, with some nice harmonising in places. A lot of the credit for the success of the show goes to them.
Future performances: 28 January at 2.00, 31 January to 2 February at 7.30, 3 February at 2.00 and 7.30.