York Theatre Royal
The time for York Theatre Royal's golden egg has come around again, and the popularity of Berwick Kaler's annual pantomime shows no sign of abating.
This year's take on Humpty Dumpty takes as a given the thinness of the original nursery rhyme in terms of plot, and from the outset introduces us to the land of "Pantoloon", a domain of the imagination happily inhabited by, among others, Snow White, Old King Cole, Simple Simon and Zebedee. The latter provides a role for Kaler's regular foil, Martin Barrass, who, after a bouncy entrance on springs, settles into the position of a generic, nonspecific (though perfectly attuned) feed for Kaler's dame, Old Mother Hubbard.
The writing is in this way somewhat spendthrift throughout, lavishing ideas around which lead nowhere, and opening promising developments which are just as quickly dropped as a comic sequence reaches its peak. As a writer, Kaler is clearly well aware of the potential energy of any of the sequences of gags he sets up, and this means that only vary rarely do the scenes go on longer than the attention span of the young audience - a considerable achievement in a three-hour show.
This is, however, at the expense of more satisfying narrative arcs, which "even" for pantomime (and even for a pantomime which repeatedly, lovingly, describes itself as "a load of rubbish") could be more satisfyingly explored: given the wealth of comic propositions which Kaler comes up with, there are surprisingly few satisfying pay-offs. Hence creative narrative leaps often turn out to be dead-ends, such as the Act One climax which sees Humpty Dumpty (AJ Powell, ridiculously Brummie) crowning himself King of Pantoloon and rescuing Snow White's native North Pole (keep up) from global warming - a setup which could have led to an intriguing conflict between Humpty and Snow White's betrothed, the chiselled, charming Vincent Gray. But this avenue (just how grateful is Snow White for the restoration of her kingdom ?) is not explored.
Likewise, the scene at the bottom of a well inhabited only by the Yorkshire Yeti fizzles out - after a meandering diversion into rather unimpressive and mal-coordinated choreography under UV lights - with the old Pythons' device of the stamping foot eradicating characters one by one. It's an overt acknowledgement that there's nowhere for the scene to go. Yet I longed to know what became of the Yorkshire Yeti, who is wheeled on and off in a most perfunctory manner, with no resolution to his yearning desire for friends with whom to take tea.
Or have I missed the point? Should and could pantomime audiences expect more than a sequence of gag-filled sketches in which the comic dynamics established by the principles over decades of working together are re-rehearsed and reiterated, with the topspin of postmodern nods to the audience ("Oh, I'll skip to the funny bit," sighs Kaler as he thrusts his brush of goo into Barrass's face)? The younger portion of the audience seemed to lap it up, and it was in some way heartening to witness children younger than ten already culturally attuned to the magic of pantomime, with the liberty to talk back its protagonists, and the excitement of recognising actors returning in new, but never unfamiliar guises. There was the goo and gunge scene, the "He's behind you"s and the "Oh no it isn't"s - rather perfunctorily despatched, it might be said. And there was a superb performance at the heart of the show: David Leonard as the evil Demon Eggula, who displayed all the magnetism, charm, versatility and power you could ever need in a pantomime villain, carrying out cheesy dance numbers and hiss-inducing to-audience pieces with equal joy. For him alone, I could recommend this show.
The troupe as a whole is smooth and connects brilliantly with the audience. But it's Leonard who comes closest to providing that rare connection which works both for adults and for children without patronising either demographic. This plea may itself be something of a cliché nowadays, but with Pixar films showing that it's possible to draw massive box offices and appeal directly to both adults and children, can't we expect slightly more story from our fairy stories?
Reviewer: Mark Smith