Monday, December 27, 2010

Mr Tumble is a real Beauty - review of The Hexagon 2010 pantomime, starring Justin Fletcher

Sleeping Beauty at The Hexagon, Reading until Sunday, January 2

THE HEXAGON has landed the pick of the celeb crop for its pantomime this year in the form of TV’s Mr Tumble himself, Justin Fletcher, in only his second live panto. Even George, now aged eight and long a graduate of CBeebies, was impressed enough to earmark this panto as the one he wanted to see.

In a production created by the team behind hit CBeebies show The Tweenies (also starring Fletcher as the orange-skinned Jake), Fletcher lit up the stage whenever he appeared as ebullient joker and inventor Josh the Jester, with a great sense of slapstick and comic timing far beyond that normally demonstrated after a panto’s normal fortnight of rehearsal. 

But although clearly the real star, Fletcher (the son of Hungerford composer Guy Fletcher) was not the only strong point of this year’s Hexagon pantomime. Proudly proclaiming Reading’s long history of panto in the programme - the town’s first was Robinson Crusoe, in the Friar Street Theatre in 1789 - Sleeping Beauty featured lush sets, fabulous costumes, a lively dark light scene, and an impressively fearsome if underused dragon.

Also strong was the supporting cast, including the legendary Jane Tucker from Rainbow - my own childhood hero - timeless as Azuriel, the good fairy, and well worthy of a mention, as she said to me after the show “the fairy never gets mentioned in reviews”. Then there was Leah Bracknell (formerly Emmerdale’s Zoe Tate), unrecognisable in a purple fright wig as the evil Carabosse, and Jolyon Dixon, an excellent sidekick to Fletcher as the panto’s dame, Nanny Nora.

Imagine Theatre did away with a lot of the current chart hits (although there was a ‘70s disco scene) and reference to current television shows that often pepper modern pantomimes but may go over the heads of the younger children, concentrating on the slapstick comedy, song, dance and audience participation that appeals to all ages. That’s not to say that this is a production aimed at pre-schoolers - it was great fun for all present, secretly even a too-cool eight-year-old who refused to join in any of the clapping. 

The only pity is that as The Corn Exchange in Newbury is also presenting Sleeping Beauty, it’ll take a hardened panto fan to make it to both productions this year. But for many wanting to take their children to their first Christmas show, the popular draw of the delightful Fletcher will be hard to resist, and they have every right to be extremely satisfied with their choice.

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on December 16, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A real treasure - review of Treasure Island at The Watermill

Treasure Island at The Watermill, Bagnor, until January 2

GRAB your cutlasses and don your eye-patches - although you may want to lift them up during the performance as you won’t want to miss a thing - The Watermill’s Christmas show is a swashbucklng adventure brimming with thrills, spills, daring-do and festive sparkle.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century children’s story has been cleverly tweaked for the 21st century by playwright Toby Hulse to make sure the production appeals to girls as well as boys, and also to ensure that the bloodthirsty elements of the tale can remain without making it too gory for the youngest of pirates.

And so, the story began in the bedroom of Emily, a modern-day girl who dreamt of growing up to be a pirate rather than a businesswoman. As Emily conjured up a motley crew of her own, the bedroom curtains swept back to reveal an “ooh”-inspiring set, that made the most of The Watermill’s natural design to double up as the Admiral Benbow inn, the schooner Hispaniola, and the island inself.

In turn, Emily’s musical pirates took on the roles of various Treasure Island characters, with Emily herself becoming young Jim Hawkins, the innkeeper’s son who runs away to sea to find the pirate treasure marked on a mysterious map. This device allowed the cast of six to constantly break the fourth wall, with knowing remarks to the audience, “I’m not really dead” being a regular call, dissolving any darkness in the tale with a cheer as the pirate bounced back up, dusted himself down and bounded off to take on the next crucial role in the tale.

A hefty injection of panto-style fun also worked well as the pirates goofed around with the props, asked the audience to suspend disbelief regarding a clearly two-legged Long John Silver and invited all to help in the ambush of the mutineers by bombarding the stage with foam rocks. The audience, of course, obliged with much gusto.

Despite the laughs to be had, Emily (Emily Butterfield) was left questioning whether a pirate’s life was truly for her when a jolly hunt for treasure revealed a raft of double crossing and left such mayhem in its wake. But with a yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum, she was persuaded that the pirate life of her imagination was worth at least one final carouse.

As for the audience, many of whom had dressed for the occasion - well, there was no need to down the grog before setting sail on this thrilling and funny adventure, that brought the classic book to life with just the right mix of respect and modern insight. The Watermill has created a Christmas production to be treasured.

Catriona Reeves and Miya Akeda-Morris, aged nine

  • First published in Newbury Weekly News on Thursday, December 2, 2010