Periodically, folk with good intentions (occasionally an agenda) voice some such question as, ‘What is Britishness?’ There is probably no clincher for this, but rather like Wittgenstein’s musings bout the concept, ‘game’, something like the possession of a number of family resemblances will have to do by way of answer. One of those, it occurred to me as I was sinking into my seat at the Theatre Royal in Bath, taking in the babble of excited young voices and the warm glow of the extra strong lights batting off the vivid, sparkling front curtain, was to be in possession of a vague apprehension of what on earth was the point of ‘Panto’. Visitors just don’t understand the annual wallow in non-p.c. silliness. Rather like Radio 4’s ‘Mornington Crescent’ in, I’m Worry I Haven’t a Clue, you either get it or you don’t. It’s in the bones.
Similarly, actors will either understand the style of acting required or they’ll find themselves unprepared by drama school and feel a little naked in terms of technique. All of which brings me to the delight one has in a performer such as Jon Monie, a regular at this time of year (‘by popular demand’) whose performances are as welcome as a hot toddy against the gathering chill outside. His Muddles is a consummate performance by a master of timing who, against all temptation, never over-eggs a joke or one-liner. It takes a special skill to play to two audiences at once; always to the younger audience, but with a, ‘not me guv I’m innocent’, half smile and gentle elbow in the ribs to the grown ups on the cascade of double-entendres and odd word play that the usually thin scripts of pantomime are leavened with. And always with that odd little, slightly comic waggle in the walk that the go-between for cast and audience shares by a kind of kinship through tradition with Buttons, Wishy-Washy and co.
Equally at home in the genre is Nick Wilton, returning for a third time to the Royal as the Dame. With no concession to the gender of his role there is nothing camp about his performance of a slightly desperate ‘woman of a certain age’, merely the whiff of quaint perplexity. Like Mr Monie he is at home in that strange, indefinable space between stage and audience.
Seducing the ‘boos’ this year as the deliciously Wicked Queen, is Harriet Thorpe. With a heart as black as her costume she jabs at the nerves of indignation that has the small folk bouncing out of their seats with squealing reproof. It matters little that mere vanity could provoke such egregious cold-heartedness for that is one of the mysteries of panto. Similarly, we may wonder how anyone could be so impossibly good as Snow White. Devon-Elise Johnson, effulgent with innocent charm and singing with matching purity makes light work of having all from the tiniest woodland creatures (care of Dorothy Colborne School of Dance) to the dwarfs and a swaggering Prince Frederick (Michael Quinn) eating out of her hand. Mr Quinn, who, as Frederick, spends most of the first half being up himself, nevertheless sings gloriously and by the end has won the heart (without too much effort it has to be said) of Snow White and the affection of the audience.
Snow White has Christmas cheer stamped all over it and with costumes, sets, lighting and music to dazzle a young audience is the perfect entertainment for a traditional Christmas. ★★★☆☆ Graham Wyles 9th December 2017
Photos by Freia Turland