Two Petite Pantos

Robert Pearce

Robert Pearce in association with Elevation Productions

Drayton Arms Theatre, London

From 09 January 2018 to 13 January 2018

Review by Simon Sladen

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Pantomimes come in all shapes and forms; from the boutique pantos of Charles Court Opera to the large scale spectacles of the London Palladium. Originally a mere aspect of an entire evening's entertainment, pantomime has since become the main event, presenting fairytale and folklore narratives for the entire family to enjoy. However, aside from the Actor's Company’s double bill of The Bacchae and Jack and the Beanstalk in the mid 1970s, contemporary pantomime has resisted such an approach... that is, of course, until now.

Two Petite Pantos offers two pantomime narratives in the space of one evening and in doing so launches a whole new venture of pantomime performance. Robert Pearce in association with Elevation Productions presents Dick Whittington followed by Mother Goose and as a result invites the audience to reflect on the genre, its narratives and practices.

As each act is a different pantomime, Dick Whittington's plot is conflated into an hour, with the usual seafaring trip to Morocco dispensed with in favour of King Rat's army taking over London, only to be defeated by a duelling Dick on home turf.

Writer, director and Dame Robert Pearce is well versed in the practice of pantomime, having performed Dame for many a year and provided scripts for a number of companies. Dick Whittington cleverly captures all the pantomime staples, whilst playing with the genre to reveal the intrinsic heart of what pantomime is and can be.

Cleverly combining the roles of Fairy Bowbells and Tommy the Cat in Fairy Furball, Pearce reminds us that pantomime's conventions outweigh the use of stock parts and indeed the merging of characters works perfectly, with the Fairy an integral part of the narrative constituting Dick's faithful cat.

With no Comic in the first act, much of the comedy is dispersed throughout the cast, all of whom present their roles with both integrity and a rather large portion of comic metatheatricality.

Indeed, one of contemporary pantomime's most important conventions is its self-reflexive nature, reminding us of seasons past and in turn establishing the shared narrative of pantomime as part of our cultural heritage.

When Amanda Swift's Alice Fitzwarren favours the use of Richard over Dick, humour arises from Pearce’s playful rhyme scheme which sets up the expectation of innuendo, but never delivers it. The shared knowledge of naughtiness helps immensely in creating a raucous environment that harks back to the days of the music hall.

Presented in the intimate surroundings of the Drayton Arms Theatre, the production achieves that rarity in pantomime of a strong shared community, where all audience members feel involved and permitted to interact at any opportunity. This atmosphere is fully embraced by the cast who revel in the audience's interjections and thus create a unique audience experience in which adults revert to children and assume the role of the playful boys and girls of whom they are so frequently referenced.

From the Busy Bee sketch to the Ghost Gag, traditionalists are able to tick off all of pantomime's staples, with the first act's presentation featuring a female Principal Boy in the form of Daisy Adams. Post-interval, however, the production changes gear and presents a contemporary Mother Goose set in an age of elections, Trumpism and single-parent families.

Of course, pantomime has always reflected the present, with early productions at the Britannia Music Hall extremely cut-throat and threatening to blow up parliament. Two Petite Pantos embraces this aspect of the genre’s history and combines shades of Sink the Pink’s recent festive shows with Òran Mór's famous A Play, A Pie and A Pint pantos.

One of the joys of seeing two different titles in one night is to compare and contrast not only the more traditional pantomime aesthetic with the contemporary, but also to revel in the skill of the performers who switch roles post interval. From Amanda Swift's charming Principal Girl to her Trump-inspired Demon Vanity and Ant Payne's geezer of a King Rat to his childish Principal Boy Colin, the production is almost panto in rep.

The only thing missing from the evening is the Song Sheet. However, there is no doubt that, were it there, the audience would join in loud and proud, which is exactly how Two Petite Panto’s praises should be sung.