First published in The Times, Friday December 15 2017
Some people know each other so well they finish each other’s sentences. This is literally true of the entertainers Allan Stewart, Andy Gray and Grant Stott, the trio that has been at the heart of the King’s Theatre’s annual pantomime for the past 13 years. Whenever one of them struggles to spit out his lines, usually due to cracking up with laughter, the other two are on hand to clear up the verbal clutter – or simply exacerbate the sense of anarchy.
The King’s audience is so familiar with these three performers and their unique onstage chemistry that pre-emptive giggles can be heard bubbling up from the auditorium almost as soon as the actors have appeared from the wings. This year’s script, written by Stewart with Michael Harrison of Qudos Entertainment, is especially fruity: dense in one-liners, visual gags and witty wordplay as well as comic set pieces showcasing the talents of its three stars.
Pic: Douglas Robertson
Although the show misses some good, old-fashioned panto ingredients, such as the sweetie shower or the song sheet finale, there are still plenty of opportunities for the cast to burst through the fourth wall. Stewart, playing the fairy godmother, pokes gentle fun at the “Waitrose shoppers” seated in the boxes. Gray, as Buttons, makes a foray into the stalls with a microphone and camera, beaming the horrified reactions of the front row onto a huge screen hanging over the stage. Stott, in his role as the villainous Baroness Hibernia Hardup, revels in opprobrium from the Hearts supporters in the audience.
Although the building blocks of the fairy tale are all in place, the story very much plays second fiddle to slapstick. At one point, Stewart’s Fairy May even acknowledges the relative unimportance of the romantic leads, saying of Cinderella (Gillian Parkhouse): “I feel sorry for her. She isn’t even on the poster.” Indeed, sincerity or soppiness of any kind are consistently undercut in this show, notably during Cinders’s and the Prince’s (James Darch) big love song, when Stewart and Gray pop up to drag the happy couple over a wall.
Pic: Douglas Robertson
The production proceeds at such a lick that it is easy to overlook the odd shortcoming, such as the deafening musical backtrack that threatens to drown out the musical numbers. The supporting cast, which includes Andrew Keay’s nimble Dandini and Maureen Carr and Clare Gray as a couple of delightfully glaikit stepsisters, are all strong, if perhaps a little underused. Still, there is plenty of magic and sparkle to compensate, not least in the transformation scene that culminates in a shower of snow over the auditorium, while the comic antics of the central trio still feel fresh, even after all these years.