In the days before Christmas tended to start in mid-November (or earlier), Boxing Day used to mark the beginning of the panto season and for many it remains a post festive day treat: or, at least, it did until Covid snuck up on us – “It’s behind you!”
It is still the most lucrative few weeks of the year for many theatres, especially those in the regions, and although there will still be a handful of venues around the country which can mount live performances, they are few and far between. The downturn in finance means it’s going to be very much squeaky bum time as to whether there will be pantos next year either. For now, most of us will be making do with online versions and many of these are now sensibly levying a charge to help make good the deficit. The good news is that there are numerous titles to choose from and you aren’t limited geographically. Thus, if people in Kent fancy seeing the National Theatre of Scotland’s Rapunzel then there is nothing to stop them. In fact, the only real problem may be in making a choice, as one glance at my panto online list may attest.
One novel solution to making an invidious choice is to plump for Potted Panto performed by Dan and Jeff which follows on from their conflation of the entire Harry Potter series as Potted Potter. This new show throws a half dozen (or so) of the most popular panto titles into the mix as well as investigating some of the traditions and history of the genre. It makes for a zany 70 minutes which both mocks and celebrates this most British of theatrical styles. The show was one of the victims of the latest restrictions as it opened at the Garrick Theatre earlier this month and the production has now emerged on video via one of the new streaming services stream.theatre. In truth I had thought I was booking in for a genuinely live streamed performance from an otherwise empty theatre but I’m not sure I’d thought that one through. An actual live audience is pretty integral to the “Potted” set up and without any spectators to bounce off the duo would have found it extremely difficult to work their schtick – hence we get a recorded version instead.
Dan (Daniel Clarkson) and Jeff (Jefferson Turner) are in many respects a throwback to the classic era of double act partnerships. In this configuration one of the pair wishes to push things forward and get things achieved (think Ernie Wise) while the other is transgressively disruptive (think Eric Morecombe). In this instance Jeff acts as the anchor wanting to do the six standard panto titles (in case you’re trying to work these out it’s Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick Whittington, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White and Aladdin). Dan however claims there are not six but 12 and wants to add in The Nativity, Mary Poppins and most bizarrely Das Boot, among others. So, Jeff’s plans for a smooth sweep through an organised schedule is constantly being sabotaged by Dan’s insistence on mucking about and trying to sneak in his choices. Eventually he manages to shoehorn A Christmas Carol into Aladdin thereby creating the interestingly hybrid character of Abanazar Scrooge.
What emerges is a series of elongated sketches with increasing bouts of silly behaviour (Dan) and increasing levels of frustration (Jeff) both of which are designed to appeal to the inner child. The duo learned their trade as CBBC presenters and that shines through as they know how to work an audience – particularly the younger element. Most of the jokes are aimed at the kids although there are some risqué elements for the parents too and even a bit of politics – their version of Dick Whittington with a Borisalike hero and a streetwise cat is in many respects remarkably similar to the panto currently being streamed by the National Theatre.
I think some of the references are a bit old hat and likely to pass over the heads of the under 10s; after all, Boris was London Mayor five years ago now and why choose Barbara Cartland as the Dame’s name in Jack and the Beanstalk when there are many more up to the minute choices which might have been better? But there are some good running gags too – Prince Charming pops up multiple times reflecting the interchangeability of many of the panto characters. And there’s also a chance to learn some of the history of panto, although this isn’t laboured, unlike a routine about traditions such as “Oh yes it is!” – “Oh no it isn’t!” which is (“Oh no it isn’t!” – “Oh yes it is!”); see what I mean? There’s plenty of audience interaction which is good – and currently rare – to see.
This is a quick and jolly canter through Pantoland hosted by a couple of energetic and resourceful performers. It might even serve as an introduction to the genre for baffled overseas viewers. The whole thing has a make do and mend vibe in tune with 2020 and at times shows high levels of invention. However, the bitty stop/start nature of the material isn’t quite satisfying enough. Maybe it’s been designed with the modern day shortened attention span in mind – oh no it hasn’t….oh yes it. And stop right there!