First published in The Times, Tuesday December 12 2017
There was drama on and offstage at the opening performance of Perth’s pantomime. Ten minutes before the finale, a few too many puffs of smoke triggered the newly refurbishment theatre’s fire alarm system, dispatching cast, crew and audience onto the High Street for an impromptu second interval. Everyone involved took the disruption in good grace. The fire fighters were even called onstage to take a bow when the action resumes.
The show’s other bonus element was rather less spontaneous. As this performance marks the official reopening of Perth’s Victorian theatre following a three-year renovation, the city’s provost, Dennis Molloy, was on hand to wield the scissors and cut the ribbon. The councillor also treated us to a few steps of the cha-cha, danced cheek-to-cheek with Barrie Hunter’s Widow Twankey.
Hunter’s dame has been a hilarious mainstay of the Perth panto for the past few years, and he remains the best thing about this year’s production, which is the first to be directed by Lu Kemp, the new artistic director. He retains the script’s funniest lines as well as the pick of the costumes, including a laundry frock created from what looks like millions of soap bubbles. Hunter’s effortless rapport with the audience makes a seamless transition from the concert hall (home to the pantomime since 2014) to the intimate surrounds of the theatre.
The ever-reliable Hunter aside, there’s something a little becalmed about this year’s festive outing. While the script, written by Joel Horwood, and with additional material by Frances Poet, sticks faithfully to the traditional story, incorporating plenty of references to the Fair City, it doesn’t fizzle with quite the same rapid-fire japery that made Perth’s 2015 production of Beauty and the Beast such a joy. Ana Inés Jabares-Pita’s set designs, which are rendered in dark, muted colours, make for an unseasonal backdrop to proceedings, though Simon Wilkinson’s lighting adds a bit of sparkle to the staging.
The pacing of Kemp’s production picks up in the second half, jollied along by confident turns from Wendy Seager as an Elvis-impersonating Genie and Christina Strachan’s funny, needy Abanazer. Indeed, Strachan makes for a fine villain, even if her character is inexplicably depicted as a toughie in an inflatable muscle suit and wrestler’s onesie topped off with the reverse Mohawk that was popularised by Keith Flint from the Prodigy. There’s a needling suspicion that the actor arrived late for the costume call and was left with a limited choice from the wardrobe department.
The supporting ensemble, which includes teams of young performers, in part lacks assurance, notably in the opening scenes, though this will undoubtedly build as the run progresses. Reservations aside, there is a lot to like in the show, and it is a pleasure to see the Perth panto back where it truly belongs.