Act One Pantomimes’ Dick Whittington at the Harpenden Public Halls has definitely been tickling some fancies around town. It’s even tickled tweeters in the Twitterverse and led to some unfortunate ruffling of feathers in local media circles. However, I’m pleased to report that no birds are harmed during this energetic production – apart from the turkey that Steve Shappelle’s excellent Sarah the Cook claims to have plucked, basted, seasoned and put in the oven, but not yet killed! [BADUM – TISH from the orchestra pit. “Oh, that’s a joke then?” mutters my octogenarian father.]
Oh yes, this year’s panto is certainly full of jokes: old and new, good and bad (but bad, in a good way, if you know what I mean) and topical, but not overbearingly so. It can be a challenge, mind you, to hear them over the laughter. I often miss the first word or two and then, of course, struggle to make sense of the punch line. I really admire all the work that Chris Law dedicates to this annual extravaganza, but just occasionally I glimpse the weight of responsibility on his shoulders through his rather formal delivery of one very funny gag after another as the smoothly respectable Alderman Fitzwarren. Contrastingly, and much as I adore the charismatic Luke Roberts as Idle Jack, his bubbly, rapid-fire joke-telling can be hard to catch. I’d like to put them both into a blender in Sarah the Cook’s mythical kitchen to see what we can create!
The script is oddly present in this production, in that some of the language and dialogue feels a little contrived, and not in a tongue-in-cheek-it’s-only-panto kind a way. For instance, when each of the lead characters appears one by one at the beginning, it’s like a cross between a fashion show and a talent contest. Taking it in turns to introduce themselves to the audience and explain their backstory feels unsophisticated and clunky. Especially these days when so many of us are accustomed to the multi-layered, split-screen audio-visual concoctions available in the media. It’s quite appropriate, by the way, that the ‘device’ of the good fairy, in this case Fairy Bowbells, confidently portrayed by the always-smiling Jen Pringle, is very much like her job on children’s television – that of continuity presenter. Although I’m not sure we really need regular re-caps of what has just happened in the previous scenes.
A slightly cringe-making moment, albeit very Romeo and Juliet, is when the keen and conscientious Dick Whittington, nicely played (and beautifully sung) by Kane Coxall, first sets eyes on the gorgeous Alice Fitzwarren, so sweetly personified (and again sung beautifully) by Alissa King-Underwood. They immediately fall in love. [“Eurgh!” remarks my 14-year-old son. “As if!”]
Having said that, this panto is an instant hit. It certainly delivers a veritable feast of colourful, artful sets and inventive props, some fabulous, often outrageous costumes, enjoyable and well-performed songs, hilarious slapstick, and of course, delightful dancing performances by local students. Involving local youngsters is an important element of this annual ritual, and The Dance Studio has provided a talented array of confident and smiley dancers. The role of Tommy the Cat is also played by local girls; shared between Adelina Amparan and Megan Flower. Not forgetting the brilliant live band under musical director, Les Arnold.
Overall the performances in this production of Dick Whittington are very strong. Personally, I’d argue that you’re not really acting in panto, it’s more delivering lines and following sets of instructions whilst pretending to be that stereotypical character who the audience has already figured out in their heads. It’s exaggerated role-play, larger than life. And actually, it’s a lot about smiling. Smiling into the audience, to acknowledge every single one of those people sitting there looking up at you, waiting for the next surprise. Unless you’re the ‘baddy’, I suppose. In which case, you’re pointing at them snarling and threatening, which Jill Priest does so well as Queen Rat.
Panto is all about audience participation and their reaction to what happens on stage. Sticking to the script helps to stay on course but it’s the ad-libbing and occasional corpsing that makes this style of theatre so adventurous and naughtily nice! And there is a relationship that builds up between the performers and members of the audience; a sort of imagined eye-to-eye contact that brings them into the story too. Act One Pantomimes never fail to create this ebullient atmosphere at the Public Halls; with shout-outs to the attending schools, scouts and guides, the poor chap who gets picked on in the front row and the lucky children who are plucked out of their seats to take part in a sing-a-long. As a family or group outing for the festive season, I can’t think of many events that would top this in terms of easy access, value for money and enjoyability!
To end my review, I will nod to Matt Adams’ review in The Herts Ad*, which is complimentary and supportive overall. He seems to make a point about making allowances for it being a ‘local’ production. Unfortunately, he is less forgiving, and less perceptive when it comes to understanding Ernie Almond’s involvement this year; in the role of the determinedly unsmiling tyrant Sultan of Morocco. I believe the problem with such a high profile local personality as Ernie being cast in this tiny part, is that it is not even a cameo role, but instead sees him acting against type, as this straight, humourless character, about to have his whole life shaken up by Sarah the Cook, we imagine. He’s on for barely ten minutes at the end, and doesn’t really make it to the front of the stage for long enough to make eye contact with us. The central placement of his photo in the publicity materials has clearly misled the afore-mentioned reviewer and possibly some of us in the audience too. We had higher expectations, which perhaps explains Matt’s concern.
However, this production of Dick Whittington at Harpenden Public Halls will not disappoint. It is a triumph, in its class. I had a great time; laughing out loud really does something positive to the old psyche. And guess what, the kids in the auditorium absolutely loved it. They were hooked every step of the way, through every scene. What better way toc keep them entertained for the best part of three hours over the holidays!
Tickets are available at Harpenden Public Halls