Swanage Drama Company The Mowlem Theatre, Swanage Caroline Burr 14 January 2023
This pantomime is a fresh look at two famous stories – Babes In The Wood and Robin Hood. Despite a published version by Alan P Frayn being available Swanage Drama Company have made this their own, in a version written by Pat Jones and Brian Travers (who also directed).
Pantomimes are always great family fun and the near capacity audience at the Saturday matinee clearly enjoyed themselves. There were lots of opportunities for audience participation with the parents and grandparents joining in as enthusiastically as the children!
Panto land is difficult territory – as well as sound and lighting, scenery, props and acting there is also usually a large cast including children, choreography, singing, with numerous costume and scene changes to coordinate. The production needs to be funny, with silly jokes suitable for children and more sophisticated political satire and smut for the adults. Most importantly, as the plot is often a bit thin and the characters stereotyped, the pace needs to be very slick. This company achieved most of these very well.
The lighting at The Mowlem was used to full effect by Dan Welsh, particularly in the prison scene, whilst the fairly simple settings were made believable with realistic backcloths.
The expected gender role reversal, good vs evil and colourful costumes – particularly the ones worn by the Dame – were all present, but I would have liked to see more slapstick comedy – there’s nothing quite like a pie in the face!
There were also one or two production issues. For instance, the sound was very crackly at the beginning and sometimes the mics weren’t turned on at the right time, which made the dialogue difficult to hear. I also felt that the smoke machine was used too often, and then it was on for too long making the actors barely visible at times.
However, the biggest problem for me were the lengthy scene changes, which slowed the pace right down and failed to keep us immersed in the story. I understand that this was sometimes due to costume changes needing to take place, but why not send on the comedy duo to tell a few jokes or get the audience involved in a singalong? Sweet Caroline would have been ideal for this.
As far as the performances are concerned David Wellstead-Arnold as the Dame was exceptional. He has a very good stage presence and the audience immediately warmed to his likeable portrayal of Nurse Annie Biotic. His good comic timing and ability to ad lib made him the mainstay of the entire production. The Babes were sweetly played by James Alcock, Ava Muir and Anthony Ayles, and Tik (Becky Stares) with Tok (Ro Smith) made a good comedy pairing. The Sheriff of Nottingham looked and sounded evil. Not the sort of person I would like to meet at night in one of the small Swanage alleyways!
Maid Marion (Holly Gate) and Robin Hood (Jeanne Lejeaune) both have good voices which was particularly apparent in the duet they had together. Tom Eastcott-Jones (Little John), Duncan Hobbs (Will Scarlett) and particularly Hannah Chelton as Allan-a-Dale provided good support as Robin Hood’s merry band. Philip Eades had the gravitas and vocal talent needed to play King Richard, but his costume needed to be grander. The Ensemble of 32 did a sterling job singing and dancing, and of course the children were very sweet.
This is a well-constructed, well written pantomime with a real community feel. There were lots of laughs during the afternoon and memorable moments included the Teddy Bears Picnic scene and Chariots of Fire.