Much Ado About Panto

‘Alas poor Shakespeare, I knew him well’: and so this interesting choice of pantomime subject sends its audience on a bizarre journey of an Elizabethan romp, including a visit from Good Queen Bess herself (Julia Wheeler), beautifully bewigged and bejewelled, alongside potatoes-obsessed Sir Walter Raleigh (Alison Pugh). Various Shakespearean components arrive in the form of famous quotes and nods to plays, including Macbeth in the opening witches’ toil and trouble and thereafter Romeo and Juliet and his lesser-known blockbuster about a cheesy superhero wearing very tight pants.

Rob Beadle brings his usual energy and stage presence to the role of Billy Shakespeare and Drew Craddock is suitably hissable as Lord Larceny, who is after Billy’s perceived income from the plays ‘wot’ he will write, drawing on the aforementioned witches for a potion. The Dame is artfully played by Mark Woodcock, being Billy’s mother, Mary, and Grace Rogers holds on tightly to her man as girl friend Annie, as all follow Billy to the Globe.

Written and directed by Adrian Barrett, the show is somewhat random in its choice of character matter, including as it does highwaymen Stage and Coach (well-matched Louisa Asquith and Colin Carter) and a press gang of naval ratings headed by Captain Sorders (a well-pitched performance by Sasha Fitney). Then there are co-joined twins (daughter(s) of Lord Larceny), Connie 1 and 2 (Richard Bevis-Lacey and Dale Yarney), owing much to the wonderful Les Dawson and Roy Barraclough. This array of personages are perhaps too fleeting in their stage contributions to the plot to really engage with: there is no regular character like Buttons or Jack or Aladdin for you to really care about and for the rest to revolve around. The obvious candidate is Will himself, but as written, much of Will’s dialogue only allows for the repeated tag line to the audience, ‘To be or not to be’, requesting the obvious audience response.

The show has a good concept but falls between stools, currently being neither a children’s show nor an adult one. Indeed, some of the innuendo would not have been out of place in series such as Plebs or The Inbetweeners. Perhaps had it been sold as an adult pantomime (there was but one child in the audience), references to the Queen’s Box, the comic sailor named Seaman Splash (a tireless Olivia Clarke) and Billy and Annie sharing a room would be very funny: whereas in front of very young children inhabiting the stage as the naval ratings, it makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing. The boxing/ hitting scene is equally uncomfortable as it is not slapstick enough: as written, the character is deliberately being hurt and there is no ‘knowing wink’ to the audience in a suitable come-uppance for the perpetrator. If more was made of the ‘Horrible Histories’ aspect, to which there is also a nod in the writing (I loved the skeleton scene), a more child-friendly and accessible show could be presented with less reliance on or need for such adult content.

Costumes are excellent, as is the resourceful use of such a small stage: scene changes are swift and lighting atmospheric, with much hard toil obviously having been put into the making of scenery in the form of various carriages, props and chicken coop.

The cast and crew work very hard and produce laugh out loud moments which brighten a chilly January evening.

Future performances: 26 and 27 January at 7.30, 28 January at 2.30 and 7.30.