From this week with more than 60% of the country languishing under Tier 3 rules, there is now very little opportunity for theatres to open their doors and even if they do so audiences are banned. The Old Vic’s decision to mount live performances of A Christmas Carol to an empty auditorium and stream the results now looks like the only direct option. Others such as the Northern Comedy Theatre continue to use a video conferencing platform to retain a live feel. For the rest it’s either nothing at all or filming in advance and broadcasting the results. This is the option that the Charles Court Opera team, working at the King’s Head Theatre in Islington, has selected for its show Snow White In The Seven Months Of Lockdown.
In keeping with a modern-day approach, this is a slimmed down version of what they have badged a “boutique pantomime”. I’m not entirely sure what that means but it would seem to do with not having chorus lines and big ensemble numbers involving superfluous villagers – very sensible in these socially distanced times; in fact, there are just five key performers. And in case you’re thinking “well how do they do the seven dwarves?”, that’s easy. You just get a single actor to portray them all and then arrange the script so that there’s only ever one of them on stage at a time. And just to keep ringing the changes, you get a tall deep-voiced man to play Snow White and two women to play the Prince and sidekick; somehow this both reinforces the conventions of pantomime but, here anyway, also undermines them.
The plotline generally follows the path of the traditional story although for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom the opening sequence is cut. Snow White (she used to be married to Barry) is already installed in the cottage where she keeps house and waits for a prince to pass by. When one does, they of course instantly fall for each other. But the wicked queen is determined to do away with her rival and hatches all sorts of plots involving Turkish Delight, a bomb and an apple pie to do the dirty deed; unfortunately, her plans keep being scuppered by other characters. As with most pantomimes though the story matters far less than the jokes and fun written into the script and songs by John Savournin and David Eaton who don’t let a Covid based moment pass by.
Savournin also plays the titular heroine (and directs) and if I say he reminds me somewhat of a young John Cleese that is entirely meant as a compliment. He makes no attempt to disguise his bass-baritone voice and his comic timing ensures that everything keeps moving swiftly along. Matthew Kellet plays all the diminished sidekicks which, because of an injunction from the Disney corporation, have all had to have slight name changes to become Gleeful, Drowsy, Self-Conscious and so on. Kellet rings the changes with a variety of differentiating accents and some degree of individual costuming and the conceit works well. The Wicked Queen of Jennie Jacobs is pretty much standard panto villain fare (but none the worse for that) and she has a great deal of fun in the process.
Her magic mirror actually contains two spirits and here we get the vocal talents (but, alas, not the actual presence) of partners Mark Gatiss and Ian Hallard. Larry and Harry – the prince and his valet – are played with suitable male swagger by Emily Cairns and Meriel Cunningham; the latter spends most of the show as a frog and although it seemed to make sense at the time, I’m having trouble recalling why. There are plenty of musical numbers some original, some almost recognisable as something else (Abba, Elton John) and in a sequence in the forest a melange of songs which don’t normally belong together but in this show somehow do.
This is a lively funny show which winks an eye at the traditional and should appeal to panto fans and refuseniks alike. Of course, the live audience is missing but this production even has a neat trick to get round that particular shortfall. In the course of the action, you are presented onscreen with what are termed “Interactive- Viewer-Choice-Moments”. While not being quite in the same league as shouting yourself hoarse, there is something satisfying in being apparently able to influence the course of a joke or suggest where the story goes next just by hitting a button. It gives a definite USP to this production and reinforces the message behind the panto that we all have choices and that we just need to make the right ones. Talking of choices, do be aware that at the outset you will need to select between the family friendly and adult (defined as 14 plus) versions which have been prepared. To get a flavour of both I watched half of each; the differences in tone aren’t that radical but like the characters in the show you need to choose wisely if watching in a family situation – if it transpires we can still have those going forward!