13th January 2018
Bacup Royal Court Theatre Group
Royal Court Theatre, Bacup
Type of Production
Claire Ashton & Michael Haworth
Claire Ashworth & Michael Haworth
Author: David Slater
For those of you who look forward to panto season, Bacup’s January offering is always a polished and memorable affair and it certainly brings in the crowds. Quite rightly too because for colourful, musical, family friendly fun, the annual Royal Court pantomime is hard to beat. I attended the matinee performance and it was heartening to see a packed house bristling with anticipation as the lights were dimmed in the auditorium and the magical panto atmosphere brought a dull January afternoon to life in an explosion of light, colour, action, music and humour.
The story of Dick Whittington and his faithful cat needs no introduction (and thanks to a very handy guide in the programme, the audience could learn more about this historical figure and the pantomime’s origins in a much appreciated - and carefully researched - detailed history) and the Bacup gang launched straight into the action. An excellent cast threw themselves into proceedings with enormous enthusiasm and delighted a theatre full of panto fans of all ages who were clearly swept away by the spectacle.
Our titular hero was played by Claire Ashworth with thigh-slapping glee (I have always very much enjoyed Bacup’s commitment to the traditions of ‘Principal Boy’ and ‘Principal Girl’) and we were blessed with not one but two loveable moggies in the shape of Tommy and Thomasina. Alice Masterson gave a masterclass in silent performance, cleverly conveying Tommy’s moods with the flick of a tail or the twitch of an ear. Rat-phobic Thomasina was a lovely creation from Megan Ashworth and it wasn’t long before romance blossomed between the two furry friends. Fantastical Fairy Bowbells was perfectly played by Gina Cole and the East End accent was an added touch of class in a typically brilliant portrayal from Gina. A beautiful voice and assured stage presence meant that the good Fairy was never in any danger of letting the evil King Rat get away with even the slightest bit of mischief. Stephen Woods and his partner in villainy, Rebecca Ashworth were fantastic as King and Queen Rat, their diabolical schemes justly deserving of the barrage of boos which greeted them upon their every appearance.
For reasons best known to the scriptwriter, we were blessed with the appearance of Captain Birdtable, a Scottish seafaring character with a habit of stealing sweets: brilliantly played by Karen McNulty, this was one of my favourite performances of the evening. Another winning performance was that of Gary Haworth’s Alderman Fitzwarren, who seemed to have arrived in London fresh off the Stacksteads stagecoach and his deliciously droll Northern delivery had me chuckling every time he appeared on stage. Emmeline Greenwood was sweetly affecting as Alice Fitzwarren and her love for Dick was nicely expressed too.
The real powerhouse - one might say the engine room - of any pantomime is of course the team of ‘Dame and feckless son’. On this occasion, we we fortunate to have the team of Michael Haworth’s Sarah the Cook and Kieran Jefferson as Idle Jack. As far as I’m concerned, Michael has no equal in District 3 as a practitioner of the arts of Damehood and anybody who wants to see how it’s done should beat a path to Bacup in the panto season. Supremely confident at playing the Dame and pitching the performance just right, Michael successfully navigates the delicate path of pleasing all ages in the audience. Confident and always in control; dominating each scene and driving the narrative; cheeky without being smutty, with a fantastic range of double entendres which fly over the heads of the nippers and amuse the mums and dads. Michael’s partner in jollity - and a role which is equally demanding in getting the young audience engaged in the madcap antics on stage - Kieran’s Idle Jack was anything but slack in the energy department. His down to earth stage presence and unflagging enthusiasm helped to centre the production and provide a bridge between the younger members of the audience and the daft antics on stage. Great work here gentlemen.
Costumes were of a very high standard, appropriate to each scene and of a quality which added an extra touch of class to the production. Make-up was also first rate and similarly gave the production a fully rounded ‘look’. Scenery and stage work was very good indeed, looking sumptuous and polished. Sound was pin sharp and if I missed the presence of a live band - for me, live theatre and live music are inseparable - at least the backing music was of a decent standard. Great support from the dancers and chorus meant that the whole show was very obviously a team effort and (praise be!) nor were we overburdened with a vast chorus of tiny tots wheeled on en masses now and again, attempting to look cute while picking their noses and drooling at the front of the stage. A refreshing change which was much appreciated! If my eyes are to believed, we even had a cameo from Oliver Peck as a very Elizabethan Sultana (and it’s not often I get to write a sentence like that!) Good work Oliver - a much appreciated little addition to the production.
If I had a complaint or two to make about the overall ‘feel’ of the production, it would lie with the general pacing and dialogue pick-ups. I did feel that were times where things plodded or cantered along rather than galloping at panto pace. There were a number of occasions where we had to wait for character A to walk offstage before character B would carry on with the scene and a few times when a couple of characters thought they were in Pinter rather than Panto. As a result, there were a few fidgety youngsters in the audience who were in danger of getting fed up of some of the scenes which dragged a little, which is never a good sign at a pantomime. Were there also a few too many ‘call and response’ moments? I know that by the time we got to Act Two, my ‘Ding Dong!’s, and ‘Oi Oi Oi!’s were all to cock (or should that be ‘Hello Dick!’....?) Having said that, I’m old and forgetful and the younger members of the audience seemed to keep up with the script even if I didn’t.
There was a good balance of music and dance scenes through the narrative with sound cues being spot on throughout the performance. Musical numbers were woven into the thread of the narrative rather than just shoehorned in for the sake of something to do which was much appreciated too. The high calibre of the cast meant that whenever things didn’t go quite to plan (a tardy pyro or a muddled cue) they rode over any of the little bumps in the road with enthusiasm and confidence and that is really what the spirit of panto is all about. (Am I allowed to add here as a postscript that my favourite performances were the surreally bonkers visitations to the stage from Alderman Fitzwarren and Captain Birdtable? Bizarre I know but the pair of them tickled my sense of humour for - mostly - all the right reasons!)
Would I rather have sharp objects inserted in painful places than sit through a pantomime? I’m afraid so: a shocking admission from a NODA representative I know. That said, given the abundance of talent and enthusiasm on display at Bacup, given another year or two of Royal Court panto therapy, perhaps even I could overcome this seasonal aversion! I have to say that I find the matinee experience the perfect way to enjoy a panto. Stepping in to the theatre from the the dim winter light of the outside world to a magical fantasy of entertainment and imagination, then to go back out into the dark January evening with the sound of joyful music, cheering and laughter still ringing in the ears is something of a tonic.
My thanks go to all all the Royal Court for a wonderful welcome, great hospitality and an afternoon of good honest fun. Long may you continue to lead the way with panto hi-jinks in District 3!