Romeo and Juliet - The Panto
The Pleasance, London
Is the weather getting you down? Does the wind cut through your trendy new jacket like Sweeney Todd's razor through a jugular? Does the absence of light give you a bad attack of the old melancholic grumblies? Does the rain want to make you swaddle yourself in bed under a cosy duvet? Don't do it to yourself! Get out and have a rollicking good laugh to drive away the winter solstice blues. Go to the Pleasance and for a cosy, heart-warming evening of fine fun and bonhommerie with the cast of Romeo and Juliet - The Panto!
For a theatre listed in Time Out under fringe venues, The Pleasance is a fine performance space with plenty of comfy seating and a good-sized stage. The foyer bar is congenial, if a trifle cramped, and a new studio has opened upstairs. Like most fringe accommodation, it is a bit off the beaten track, but the programming is varied, the shows inventive, and of a high calibre. Moreover, it's often a preview space for excellent work preparing to join in the competitive mayhem of the Edinburgh Festival. In Edinburgh, The Pleasance is virtually a mini-festival in it's own right. The show running until Christmas, Romeo and Juliet - The Panto, marks a happy collaboration with producing house C-Theatre, responsible for The Pleasance's greatest rival in the mini-festival stakes at Edinburgh, C-Venues. And while C-Theatre has no London home performance space, it is to be hoped that this partnership may continue.
While Romeo and Juliet - The Panto remains very satisfyingly faithful to one of our oldest and dearest art forms, it is a rendering for a contemporary audience. Rhyming couplets are wittily and hammily interspersed with slang, scintillatingly awful jokes and contemporary pop (sung delightfully and excruciatingly badly -- but then groaning is part of a traditional panto's audience participation). Moreover, there's not a soap-star in sight, nor a sequined transvestite, just five superbly talented and dynamic young actors, giving it their all in low-budget style and evidently enjoying themselves in the process of de-bunking the bard.
Of course, all the traditional characters are there. The Principle Boy, Romeo, played with thigh-slapping panache by Catherine Millsom; our heroine Juliet, beautiful and lithesome, boogying in period costume, an expert at both comic histrionics and pop-star parody (while an actor walks across the back of the stage with a placard reading 'Boring Bit', the reverse of which says 'Sorry', and returns with another placard reading 'Golf Sale'). Sy Thomas takes on Juliet's father, Mercutio and a vacantly smiling, dotty Friar Laurence, the latter being transformed into a major player in this version. And Sy's a gem, even as Mercutio's ghost, which gives the audience the opportunity to shout the 'behind you' bits.
But there are two true stars of the show. The Pantomine Dame, Nursey, was rendered with such down-to-earth Northerner confidence by David Carter, that we are instantly eating out of the palm of her hand, singing the 'hey-nonny- no' bits in a traditional love song, and greeting her every entrance with a loud, exuberant chorus of: "Hello, Nursey, how's the flour for your baps?" In this version, The Montagues and 'Copulates' are rival bakers mince pie jokes abound. In fact, a large mince pie, cooked up with considerable comic gusto in a musical intermezzo of sheer genius by Friar Laurence and Nursey to contain a message to Romeo, provides us with the denouement. And James Austin Harvey plays the Villain, Tybalt Prince of Cats, with wicked delight. Ooo, I do love a good comic villain! Ooo, you sexy beast! Happily, his plot to do away with Romeo by selling him, in disguise, a poisoned cappuccino, is flummoxed by audience participation.
I haven't been to a panto for years, largely because what was once a good, honest working-class genre has been so debased by celebs who can't act and/or the technological wow-factor of expensive special effects. This production puts panto back where it belongs: a space where actors and audience meet to mutually participate in a wholesome evening of shared fun, mild satire, and, above all, sheer delight in that vast potential for creative inventiveness which is British theatre. It comes in a package of comic performance of the old ilk, that has been honed since the Middle Ages and can still engage, delivered with delicious physical skill: the basics of theatre in which we British excel. And, in this case, a wee touch of bard-bashing doesn't go amiss. The audience were loving it and only the artistic director's dog snored throughout.
This is British fringe theatre at it's very best. There is such a wealth of creative and imaginative talent out there beyond the West End. C-Theatre is giving those talents the opportunities to showcase their work, and The Pleasance provides the space. Don't say 'humbug' and go to Les Miserables for your annual Christmas jaunt: pay extortionate prices for seats and put money in the pockets of big-time producers. Get back to your British theatrical roots! Put your money into the fringe, where the good work is being done by a young generation. Go and see Romeo and Juliet - The Panto.
And a very chuckly and merry Grimble to you all. After last night, I can't face another mince pie! And, wait a minute! Isn't Nursey too post-menopausal to have a bun in the oven? Well, anything can happen in Panto. It's fiction after all!
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher