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Little Red Riding Hood

Book and lyrics by Trish Cooke, music and lyrics by Robert Hyman
Theatre Royal Stratford East
(2010)

Little Red Riding Hood production photo

If you are looking for X-Factor contestants and soap 'stars' in your panto, or speciality acts from the Variety stage (well Britain's Got Talent) there's not much point making a trip to Stratford, but you'd be missing a treat. Some of the elements of 'traditional' pantomime indeed are missing. There isn't a wallpapering/pastry-making/water- sloshing comic interlude imported from the music halls in the twentieth century, there's no harlequinade (but they began to go out 150 years ago), and this year the Theatre Royal does not even give us a transformation scene, but the spirit of pantomime is very much intact with a first-rate cast (some of whom are certainly familiar and much-loved stars in the Stratford firmament) in a five star show.

'Oggy, oggy, oggy!' go the cast. 'Oink, oink, oink!' go the rest of us - and the show hasn't really started. It is the Three Little Pigs - Gemma Salter's Straw, and Stephen Lloyd's Bricks, led by the totally charismatic Darren Hart as Woody - doing the warm-up, getting everyone to perform a version of 'Old Macdonald's Farm' with all its animals suggested by the audience. It's worth crossing London for that alone.

The script is given a local and topical touch by having all the forest creatures demonstrating against the brand new road that is cutting through their home. It was all the idea of the Mayor, who isn't actually the Mayor at all but the very, very wicked Lupinus, the Big Bad Wolf who already has the Mayor in his belly and is hungry to eat up the rest of the cast. Michael Bertenshaw adds to his long line of dames and demons with another big-lunged baddie whom it is a delight to boo.

Chloe Allen is a charming Red Riding Hood, always being put down by big sister Big Blue Bossy Boots (Ayesha Antoine). They don't get caught up in all that Freudian sexual interpretation of the story but perfectly encapsulate that sibling rivalry and teenage awakening of a twelve-year-old and her thirteen-year-old sister. .No cardboard cut-outs in this show, the characters all feel very real: they may be squirrels, owls or rabbits but forest folk and humans are all like people who live down your street, especially if it is in East 15 (though Stephen Lloyd's perky blue Squirrel has moved down from Birmingham), and Delroy Atkinson's Booty Owl makes a great leader of the woodland gang.

The girls' now single young mum (sprightly Sharona Sassoon) has just met Ben the new woodcutter and is very keen on him. He thinks it's because of his big chopper (no, they avoid that gag - he calls it an axe) but he doesn't know how to use it. Marcus Eland makes him a gentle, retiring kind of chap. Indeed, it turns out he is really a vet and his scalpel skills come in very handy later.

You can see exactly where the girls get their forceful personalities from: was there ever a more feisty lady than this glittering gold Grannie (that's just her dress), but this isn't a dame role that relies on elaborate over-the-top costumes but on the vitality of Derek Elroy's hip-swivelling sassy characterisation - a real with-it lady who may exploits her loving family but probably gives it back a hundredfold. He knows just how to play the audience and his passion for bald-headed George, sitting next to me, became part of the show.

I am tempted to say that Elroy becomes the star of the show but at Stratford that is really the audience, not least in the song sheet number, handled here by Big Blue and needed to help free half the cast from inside Lupinus. Everyone pulls their weight and more in keeping things lively and exciting. It's staged straightforwardly in Emma Wee's sets and costumes, driven by the almost non-stop score beautifully synchronised with the action by musical director Sean Green, packed with lively choreography by Jason Pennycooke and all brought together in a triumph of ensemble by director Omar Okai. The Theatre Royal has done it again!

Ends 22nd January 2011

Reviewer: Howard Loxton