The New Wimbledon Theatre, London, Tuesday 20th December, 2011
I was surprised to learn that this was self-proclaimed megastar Dame Edna Everage’s first foray into pantomime – one would think that this most famous of drag acts would be ideally suited to a genre that relies heavily on cross-dressing and innuendo.
I’m a fan of Barry Humphries. His characters, Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson, are Australian monsters and wonderful creations both, but where this appearance of Melbourne’s most famous housewife didn’t quite work for me was – well, practically every time she strode or flew onto the stage. Her first entrance, flown across the auditorium in a giant wombat, had great impact and was greeted with delight and a warm welcome. After that it went downhill very quickly. The rest of the cast abandoned the stage, leaving Dame Edna to perform a monologue, a Dame Edna monologue rather than a pantomime monologue – and there’s the rub. Parents and grandparents and other assorted oldies enjoyed the suggestive jokes but after a couple of minutes, the kids were growing fidgety. It was as though they were being ignored for a few moments and the action had ground to a complete standstill. This was a pity because up until that point, things had been cracking along apace with hit-and-miss corny jokes being fired relentlessly at us – the bulk of them from Kev Orkian as Idle Jack and Eric Potts as Sarah the Cook. That’s right, kiddies, two men dressed as women in this production and it’s not even Cinderella! Sarah the Cook is more grotesque than Dame Edna, more outlandish in her attire, but her characterisation and involvement in routines all work within the world of the show. Dame Edna seems an interruption, an add-on, rather than an assimilation.
And that’s what panto is about: assimilation. Topical references and catchphrases are all brought into the world of the show, anachronistically and satirically. A mention in panto means you have become mainstream. The audience bonds in its recognition and laughter. Idle Jack breaks into a chorus of Go Compare with very little provocation, the Beckhams are mocked, Deal or No Deal is invoked… The performance ends with the entire company belting out a rendition of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, for pity’s sake!
The intrusion of Dame Edna aside, the rest of the show gels extremely well precisely because it doesn’t deviate from the time-honoured structure of the story. Baddie King Rat (Richard Calkin) is perhaps a little underused but the two main comedians, Orkian and Potts, milk the fun for all its worth. There is a kitchen scene involving self-raising sausages that is especially hilarious – hearkening back to ancient Greek comedy, but you don’t need to know any of that to sit back and enjoy the show. The pair (of actors, not sausages) is strongly supported by Ben Goffe as the diminutive Captain Titchworth. His treatment at their hands during a riotous rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas borders on bullying – he is evidently a very good sport as well as a skilled tumbler.
Sam Attwater’s Dick is upright and appealing but the show belongs to the comic performers. Stoke-on-Trent stalwart, Eric Potts provides not only a powerful turn as the dame but he also directs the action and has written the script, forged from his vast knowledge of the genre. He knows the traditions and has a lively ear for contemporary references to make those traditions seem fresh. He must be the king of pantomime these days, more than deserving of that crown since the passing of the great John Morley.
We are treated to a 3D sequence – a growing trend at pantomimes – for which we are obliged to don Dame Edna glasses. This is fun and very effective but I worry that the more traditional black theatre routines will be lost altogether. It is somehow more magical to see special effects done live than on a video clip.
All in all this is a very strong show. Dame Edna needs to be in role as a panto character rather than a visting dignitary who brings things to a halt (literally, in one scene!), bringing with her pacing problems.
Otherwise it rattles along at a rate of knots,
Thanks to script and direction by Eric Potts.