With much of panto season curtailed due to the latest lockdown announcements, audiences across the country are logging online to get their fix of festive fun.
This year sees over 70 online pantomimes to choose from. Whilst many have been filmed in a theatre or constitute an archival recording, Panto Live’s Cinderella claims to be the world’s first online interactive panto.
One of pantomime’s key components, all streamed shows must contend with the challenge of interactivity. This summer, Guildford Fringe’s Pinocchio experimented with the form by posting selected funny quips from the show’s comments feed on screen, but Panto Live goes a step further with a set of sound effect buttons for the audience at home to use.
From “Boo!” to “Behind You!” and “Clap!” to “Cheer!”, the buttons act as an interactive keypad during the show. Characters encourage viewers to press when appropriate, but given that neither performers nor other households can hear the audio, they seem a little redundant. Why not just join in by using your voice?
An additional layer of interactivity is suggested by the use of a Zoom-like interface when the Ugly Sisters look for a man. Suddenly, the viewer is plunged into dozens of homes and an unfortunate individual is chosen. Sadly, we only see the chosen stooge once and the technique isn’t used again until the production’s songsheet when Buttons does a couple of quick interviews and proceeds to sing "Snow Is Falling" as the viewers see the selected few dancing in their living rooms.
Music features heavily throughout the production with Disney big-hitters "You’re Welcome" from Moana and Frozen II’s "Into the Unknown" bookending the first act. Each of the ten-strong cast has strong vocals and does their best to conjure the fantasy world of pantomime, even if the camera lens is much less favourable to the overacting sometimes seen on stage. Billed at 90 minutes, Cinderella’s 15-minute interview could easily be sacrificed to streamline proceedings and keep the pace flowing.
Situated in a studio, great use has been made of CGI animated settings from snowy scenery for the Frozen Forest Festival to a rotating disco ball in the Prince’s Palace for act two opener "The Greatest Show". It is somewhat disappointing, however, that the grand transformation sequence doesn’t take full advantage of the technology, with Cinderella merely sitting in a stationary carriage rather than galloping to the Prince’s Castle or flying through the air.
Perhaps the greatest use of technology is afforded to Harry Potter star Chris Rankin’s Fairy Godfather fluttering and flying above his fellow characters in almost every scene. With Tom Walley’s script ticking off all the pantomime staples, it is a shame that the production frequently places the Godfather in the malevolent rather than benevolent side of the screen as per pantomime’s conventions.
The technology holds up well, aside from a few times when the lighting affects the chroma key compositing of green screen and virtual scenery and is so aggressive that characters are bathed in either blue or complete shadow. This, along with some sound mixing level issues, leaves the production still needing some tweaks before achieving a seamless and striking show.
With the CBeebies pantomimes available to watch for free on iPlayer, online shows have to work extremely hard to match the award-winning channel’s high standards. Panto Live shows great potential, but has a long way to go if it wants to be seen as "the ultimate pantomime experience" it claims.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen