PANTOS ON STRIKE
Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Tuesday 17th January, 2012
This “show for grown-up boys and girls” has a sense of humour that makes Mrs Brown’s Boys seem like Chekhov. The story, such as it is, involves Robbie Williams’s mate, Jonathan Wilkes teaming up with Peter Kay’s mate, Paddy McGuinness when the Fairy Godmother (a very game Zoe Tyler) summons them to Pantoland to save the day. The Princess has been kidnapped. The villain (Brian Capron having a ball) is demanding that Evil be allowed to conquer Good for a change – pantomimes across the land are threatened. Characters form a picket line, refusing to comply until the Princess is rescued.
Whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, they do it at a cracking pace – it’s all about getting from one pantomime set-up to the next. No one is allowed to slow the action down by going into their act. And so we get a messy kitchen scene, plenty of “He’s behind you” and even a flying scene. It’s all childish and juvenile but if you disengage your brain it’s very funny. Too many scenes end with an expletive for a punch line, I found – a sort of get out clause for every situation, and there are times when the stage is cluttered with characters with nothing to do but, on the whole, the silliness and puerile humour work very well.
Jonathan Wilkes (who co-wrote and directed the thing) is the same affable panto persona he usually is. A likable, cheeky chappie who immerses himself into the spirit of the piece wholeheartedly and the audience (admittedly, it’s his home town) are in the palm of his hand, precisely because he treats them as any other panto crowd. The audience regressed to their childhood – that part of childhood spent behind the bicycle sheds. Wilkes is an accomplished performer in musical theatre but pantomime is definitely his milieu. It is a sphere in which few are able to perform so expertly.
Paddy McGuinness is, in contrast, an unwilling participant, mocking and belittling the conventions of pantomime. He is punished (or rewarded, depending on your viewpoint) by attracting the sexual favours of a transvestite dwarf (the energetic Phil Holden) – it will distract him from his habitual abuse of a toy rabbit while he watches a video of Watership Down… You should have a strong idea of the kind of material we’re dealing with here. One can detect the hand of panto god Eric Potts in the structure. The subversion, I suspect, came largely from the brain of McGuinness.
Christian Patterson’s Dame Dolly Dumpling is a joy. A traditional Dame but with a foul mouth and questionable manners, he gives an authenticity to the proceedings – the rest of the cast may be attractive young things in sexy fairy tale outfits, but Dame Dolly is the real deal. Zoe Tyler (Loose Woman and singing coach) is more than up for it, and Brian Capron, formerly the baddie in TV’s longest-running panto, Coronation Street, has fun with his declamations and provoking us all to swear at him.
Politically incorrect and exploitative, you might say, but within context the only criterion for judging Pantos On Strike should be “Is it funny?”
Oh yes, it fucking is.