Opening nights have a palpable excitement. A veritable crackle. And sometimes a warning, in song, about the big, tall, terrible, awesome, scary, wonderful giants in the sky, before a firework bang so loud you forget all about giants for a while, bedazzled by the appearance of the scatty Fairy Fuschia, who is giving Tunbridge Wells’ Su Pollard a run for her money in the loveably dizzy panto star stakes.
Off she races in rollicking rhyme, before Robin Cousins’ Fleshcreep sweeps on, glittering in green and purple, make up smeared somewhere between The Joker and Beetlejuice, getting the boos he deserves.
After a few years of genuine A-listers, Chatham hasn’t got a truly massive name this year. Don’t let that put you off. You know the story, and it doesn’t disappoint, and the cast is still fantastic. Katie Warsop’s Princess Jill is the perfect love match for Tracey Penn’s Jack, especially when they duet. Penn and Joe Tracini (who plays Jack’s brother, Simple Simon) are superlative attention grabbers, her due to great stage presence, great legs and an amazing belting vocal, and he because year after year he proves he’s the hands-down best pantomime fool in the business – a natural successor to Norman Wisdom and a seasoned ad-libber, with the energy, lip and wit of an eight year-old on a multi-pack of chocolate buttons.
Ian Mowat’s Dame Trott and Simple Simon have all the best innuendo. From Tracini, it sounds innocent, and from Mowat, you know there’s nothing like a dame. I wouldn’t cast aspersions about keeping her knickers on, but she does manage to shed 16 spectacular costumes and start three courtships in the course of three hours. (Watch and learn, ladies, watch and learn.)
The script works for all ages, with a few close-to-the-bone political jokes, and references to popular shows past and present: ‘Blind Date’, ‘The X Factor’, ‘Bake Off’, ‘Strictly’ and ‘The Bill’, thanks to King Cuthbert being played by ‘The Bill’ long-timer Graham Cole. As do the songs – the first full cast number is a glorious technicolour rendition of ELO’s ‘Mr Blue Sky’, as is Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ and ‘Shake, Rattle and Roll’ for which Tracini dresses up as an inflatable Elvis. Teenagers will no doubt know and love Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’, and tweens will be dancing in their seats to ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from the recent ‘Trolls’ movie. For the over-40s, they also throw in ‘On My Own’ from ‘Les Mis’ for good measure – a song choice that causes Cousins to remark that if he wanted musical theatre classics he would have kidnapped John Barrowman instead of a Princess. One can only hope that pairing gets pulled off in Pantoland somewhere next year.
There were a few early run, late second-half wobbles – a remote control goose that wouldn’t be controlled, leading to Cousins having to practically push it across the stage, to much laughter (they should leave this in – when has a real goose ever done anything to order?) and a strange false ending, after which Tracini does some magic (he’s award-winning at close-up tricks) and has some children up on stage who don’t know the words to the time-filling sing-along ‘Old MacDonald’, leading him to have to improvise like fury without humiliating them – a real skill and a winner with the audience, before a sort of encore and applause section, the point of which seemed to be purely a mass costume change before the well deserved applause. This is the only bit which really needs some work.
The rest is great – properly engaging and great fun, with three big, showstopping aspects: the appearance of the beanstalk, the jaw-dropping Giant Blunderbore (that song from the beginning will make breath-taking sense later) and Robin Cousins, of course, doing a little of what he’s best known for in a scorching duet with Fairy Fuschia.
The verdict from my child was that it was ‘brilliant’. Although she was perplexed that Clarabelle the cow didn’t make a reappearance at the end, after she was supposed to have been rescued by Jack. Vegan children will notice these things. They’re always looking behind you. Which is exactly what you want in panto.