The Queen of Hearts
Every now and again, a production joins the upper echelons of pantomime as it drives the genre forward by reviving and revitalising the past. This year, Greenwich Theatre makes history with their stunning production of The Queen of Hearts, last seen on the pantomime stage almost fifty years ago with Danny La Rue as the Dame extraordinaire.
Having spent 15 years at the helm of Greenwich pantomime, Andrew Pollard is up there with La Rue in the Great Hall of Dame. Not only is his Dame one of the best in the business, his scripts are some of the most innovative and fresh, with his direction second to none. This year in particular, the show’s plotting is tighter than ever before, which creates a crystal clear narrative with well-defined characters; vital for a largely unknown pantomime title.
In Pollard’s Queen of Hearts, the hard-up and villainous King of Clubs seeks to steal the Queen’s secret tart recipe. He plans to dupe his oppressed subjects into paying for his expensive nightclubbing antics after feeding them the Queen's happiness-inducing tarts, but, as with all good pantomimes, good triumphs over evil when he is foiled by his own dastardly plan.
This is a pantomime full of love, not only in the care taken to stage the show, but in the musical numbers including an uplifting rendition of "This Will Be (An Everlasting Love)" and the vibrant red hearts that adorn the stage. The pandemic has meant budgets are somewhat smaller than in previous years and, whilst this shows in the lack of ensemble and absence of Greenwich’s revolving set, Cleo Pettitt’s ingenious design conjures up a striking house of cards, complete with transformation sequence to conclude act one when an age-old prophesy comes true.
Not only is the show’s design, with its bold use of shapes and colour, visually impactful, it also places the band at the centre of proceedings. As the Lord High Ace of the Palace, musical director ‘Uncle Steve' is fully in the spotlight along with his fellow musicians who remain visible on stage throughout. The increased interaction with the band only heightens the sense of community, both on stage and in the audience. After all, the team at Greenwich really is one big happy family.
Pollard and Anthony Spargo are reunited as Dame and Villain, constituting one of the best double acts in Pantoland. In addition to their playful antics, this year sees them excel in comedy business, first with some feathered friend ventriloquy and later an obligatory baking scene complete with soggy bottom.
It is pure genius that the show’s conclusion crescendos from a game of Play Your Cards Right complete with Bruce Forsyth impression and audience participation courtesy of Spargo, but further attention could be afforded to Jack, the Knave of Heart’s running gag with a ladder and the key role it plays in resolving the narrative.
The cast may only comprise five, but they still pack a punch with Gibsa Bah’s likeable Jack befriending the audience and winning their affection after being friend-zoned by Myla Carmen’s fine-voiced Princess of Diamonds. Pollard may be the king of anarchy and innuendo, but his scripts are also incredibly tender, none more so than a scene between Jack and the Princess of Diamonds that celebrates the strong bond of friendship and results in a touching rendition of "That’s What Friends of For".
However, the show isn’t without romance, and Emma J Thomas’s Prince of Spades truly captures the essence of a 21st century female Principal Boy in her strong, assertive role model. Here, romance is used to establish the narrative before the quest takes over as four friends set out to retrieve the stolen recipe. This is a growing trend in contemporary pantomime and reflects societal narratives around the importance of collaboration and community.
As the Queen of Hearts herself says, “love makes the world a better place,” and indeed Greenwich’s annual festive fare, fully crafted with love, sets the gold standard for pantomime.
Reviewer: Simon Sladen