Cinderella (Such Stuff Productions: Avondale Theatre at Italia Conti)
Such Stuff Productions: Cinderella
The premise of fledgling company 'Such Stuff Productions' is lovely; the acting graduates from prestigious Italia Conti realised that, despite pantomimes being a huge annual employer of actors, they were not taught this technique directly throughout their training. So a group of talented graduates created their own company and are now in their fourth year (I think) of producing small scale pantomimes.
The writing team of Joe Morrow and Emma Hook have created a wonderfully witty script, full of original songs. The writing was pitched at the perfect level; intelligent enough to keep the adults entertained while containing enough jokes and traditional pantomime business for the children, and especially in the songs, showed an intelligence and wit rarely seen in panto. Yes there were some slightly cringe-worthy saccharine moments but that is the nature of pantomime; if the characters are caricatures, then they have to play to those stock types.
Having said that, I actually very much enjoyed the performance of Joey Ellis as Prince Charming. A character than can often be one dimensional and unsympathetic became truly charming in a completely naturalistic, unique way.
Obviously the Ugly Sisters (played here by Jack Heath and Simon Naylor) stole the show - the 'kebab' scene had my boyfriend and I crying with laughter - but they had strong competition from the Fairy Godmother, Fairy Nuff (Lauren Roberts) and her two inept assistants Clare Voyant (Nina Toussaint-White) and Si Kick (Rosie Hancock), who delivered a couple of my favourite lines of the show.
Other stand out performances included Queenie (Sonnie Beckett) and Dan Deeny (Jack Gogarty) who brought a wonderful 'Blackadder' quality to their hysterically inappropriate relationship.
The performance carried through into the programmes, with comedy biographies for each of the performers that had me a little confused until I realised they weren't supposed to be taken seriously! At first I just thought someone had failed to proof-read!
The programme biographies
Playing in the Avondale Theatre gave the actors opportunity to interact with the audience in a way that wouldn't be possible in a traditional space; Such Stuff is a young, new company and they can only develop and expand beyond these smaller performance areas; I'm excited to see where they will go in the future - this production of 'Cinderella', in a larger, more mainstream theatre, with better advertising and more budget for production, would have been a smash hit this Christmas. As it was, I'm glad I got to see them right at the start so I can say "I saw them when..."
The Avondale Theatre at Italia Conti
Aladdin (Paul Holman Associates Present: Watersmeet Theatre)
The second panto of the season was a bigger budget, traditional production of Aladdin. The cast included a couple of celebrities, as is the tradition of modern-day pantomimes, alongside a supporting cast plucked from local dance schools to ensure a ready supply of audience members willing to watch the show more than once.
The production began with the two policemen, PC Ping (Mathew Waters) and PC Pong (Joe Morrow) greeting the audience, meandering through the seats and interacting with the children. Their high energy was infectious and I felt like the pace was built up to suddenly drop with the appearance of Abanazar (Nigel Pivaro): his delivery attempted to be menacing but just came off as a little bit bored; and I don't want to sound like a pedant but why was he not wearing any make-up? Maybe he was wearing a little stage make up but nothing to enhance the character.
The dance numbers, featuring dancers from a local school, were high energy and fun, and received excellent applause from the audience. My eyes were constantly drawn to the one dancer who didn't seem to really know what she was doing; maybe she was a last minute replacement and hadn't had time to learn the choreography, but when the other dancers on stage were sharp and precise, this one really stood out.
In 'Aladdin', it's very obviously the Dame Widow Twankey (Robert Forknall) who steals the show; with each costume more ridiculous than the last, a sarcastic, drawling delivery alongside huge amounts of energy, he really does deserve his status as one of the best Dames in the country. The front-of-curtain business between Scene Four and Five in Act Two left myself and my boyfriend gasping for breath with tears streaming down our cheeks.
The two policemen had some lovely moments of physical comedy (I don't know how they're not both in hospital with multiple injuries at this stage of the run!), keeping the children entertained with slapstick falls and confusions, and providing the adults with enough word-play and one-liners to hold attention to characters who often simply play pratfalls. And speaking of energy, Wishee Washee (Ian Jones) had a seemingly endless supply, reminding me a little of comedian Lee Evans as he capered around the stage.
My favourite moments of the production, however, were Aladdin's Magic Carpet ride (imaginative lighting, strong singing from Aladdin (Luke Roberts) and an actual, flying magic carpet!), the closing of Act One with lovely harmonies from the Slave Of The Ring (Christina Laurie - it's a shame she didn't get to sing more), Aladdin and The Genie Of The Lamp (Sean Hinds), and the unexpected beauty of the Emperor Of China (Gary Davies), breaking into 'Nessun Dorma' during the wedding scene, which moved me to tears.
The Watersmeet Theatre, Rickmansworth
A very traditional, fun, family pantomime; Aladdin is running until the end of the month and is worth a watch: the racial stereotypes are a little outdated in this day and age, and I'm not sure why we seemed to jump between India (costuming of Aladdin, the Slave and the Genie), China and Egypt, but the main cast have a wonderful symbiosis creating standout moments of comedy that kept us chuckling all the way home.