Oxford Playhouse – until to 6 January 2018
The great thing about the proud tradition of Oxford Playhouse panto is that while cannily aware of the audience’s likely cultural uplift, it has no fear of getting down and dirty with the rackety, popular and downright silly, and a firm grip on local in-jokes. So we get puns on focaccia and cannelloni, and once the Dame is in her giant-fish-scale frock for the pirate scene she rattles off a list of her RSC ambitions: ‘Anchovy and Cleopatra’, ‘The Comedy of Herrings’, ‘Salmon of Athens’, etc. We also get borrowings off Oliver! and Les Mis, a bit of Wim-owei and Daaay O, a random rackety mass of disco and a Spice Girls tribute.
As for the Cat, he is a proper urban moggy, cool as Stormzy: Alessandro Babalola breakdancing, cartwheeling, rapping and hip-hopping and patronising the somewhat simple farmer’s lad Dick from Oxfordshirecester as he unwisely heads up the M40 to streets paved with problems.
There’s a cheer for female emancipation (it’s Alice Fitzwarren who becomes Mayor before Dick), an election poster on a red bus, and a nicely embittered prediction of Oxford being swallowed by London (“Welcome to Zone 17”). It is also vital in this city to be half-partisan and half-mocking about the Welsh, so I did appreciate the “Why don’t penguins live in Britain? Cos they’re scared of Wales”.
But never mind the cultural-topical-political highs and lows, references which no proper panto since Grimaldi’s day has shirked. This was a packed schools matinee and from the deafening pre-curtain disco bouncing and wild cheers between balcony and stalls, the tots were more than up for it. And the cast reached out – across all baffling references and semi-audible patter lyrics – and gave them one hell of a good afternoon. The old story is followed admirably, pirates and all, and so are the sacred conventions of Behind-you, O No It Isn’t, Cream-pie-in-the-face and a nicely spectacular UV-light underwater scene enabling a quick chorus of ‘Baby Shark’. Which even I know is a Thing.
The evil rats are great, Max Olesker enjoying badness after being Prince Charming last year; Fitzwarren is a nicely bumbling Tim Treloar, and Paul Barnhill Sarah the cook. Importantly, they are all fabulous roaring voices, Barnhill in his spotty-gingham-ruffly OTT cook kit and spangly boat-shaped dress is full-on operatic. No reedy tenors here. Indeed the very authority of their big voices helps to rally, energize and dominate the roiling sea of small children as they stir them up. Anthony Lamble’s set has just enough of the colouring-book about it, Amanda Hambleton’s costumes lash out on lamé and preposterousness, and Steve Marmion , its writer-director, keeps it hammering along. All, in short, is as it should be. O Yes it Is.
www.oxfordplayhouse.com to 6 Jan