Review: Sinbad the Sailor at Theatre Royal Stratford East

Guest review by Ross McGregor

The tried and tested conventions of the pantomime form are entrenched in our theatrical consciousness as deeply as Yorrick’s skull or Earnest’s mother’s handbag. The plucky principal boy (played by a girl), a 4th wall-breaking dame (played by a man), the slapstick comedy (borrowed from commedia dell-arte), the audience participation and the musical numbers all wrapped in a mythical fable. Panto season is old. But it is also, for theatre managers, big business. The pressure is on, then, with every theatre in the country performing the same set of fairy-tales, to make your pantomime a sure-fire success. 

At Theatre Royal Stratford East, director Kerry Michael and writer Paul Sirett have done exactly that. Sinbad The Sailor is a family-orientated festival of fun that honours the traditional archetypes of the pantomime form whilst allowing for refreshing modern twists. It is a fast and fluid, beautifully-realised pageant that champions community, acceptance and friendship.

The story is simple enough: Sinbad is in a competition for the love of a beautiful princess. It’s a race to find an artefact, the use of which ultimately sums up the production’s focus on the power of the human heart. It’s a quest across the sea, filled with monsters, pirates, giant monkeys, jungle fevers, rebellious genies, love, laughter and magic. 

Photo credit: Sharron Wallace
Photo credit: Sharron Wallace

Sirret’s sharp-tongued and astute script, as well as Michael’s meticulous direction make the action sing, with scenes interlocking and careening the audience through the adventure plot. There was a tendency to rely too much on Donald Trump jokes, which I suppose is only to be expected this year, but I did feel their power and punch would have been strengthened had they been fewer. Wayne Nunes and Perry Melius’s music and lyrics serenades us into the exotic world of the story – the highlight being a phenomenal gospel revival church number for the Genies – whilst carefully dipping into modern pop culture.

Rina Fatania plays the Green Genie Uzz. Fatania is simply a force of nature; her neck-high pantaloons are bursting with an effervescent energy. She is the purest essence of a clown I’ve ever seen, and her mastery of her character arc is at once charming, gorgeous and irrepressibly endearing. At her side is Globe Theatre veteran Michael Bertenshaw as the villain Prince Naw-Ze Uzz. A veritable jedi of the medium, Bertenshaw fulfils the Dame/Buttons roles here as the primary link to the audience. This is an interesting inversion of the form on the writer’s part, and Bertenshaw flourishes majestically in his cutting social commentary. His gimlet-eyed, glee-filled confessional with the audience is flawless, and his scenes with Fatania become a masterclass in comic timing.

Alim Jayda also deserves mention for his star turn as Captain Greenbeard, a cross between Beetlejuice, Alan Carr, Jack Sparrow and The Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh.  Jayda commands the stage in every scene he’s in, and infuses the role with a verve and vitality that reveals the considerable depth of his talent, and his ease in the medium.  This young man has a bright future ahead of him.

Drama school graduate Julian Capolei plays the eponymous role of renowned adventurer Sinbad, another twist on the form being that it is actually his sister Sinbadda, played by Gabby Wong, who’s responsible for all the adventures, whilst Sinbad stays cosy and safe writing stories. The duo make a perfect pair, wide-eyed and happy-go-lucky, their onstage chemistry and affection for each other palpable. Along for the adventure is Marianna Neofitou as the Princess, who actually spends the majority of the play dressed as a young man, another clever inversion of the “principal boy” form, transforming her from the usual female prize/hostage to an active participant of the adventure. Capolei and Neofitou indulge in some wonderfully-realised gender-bending romance, revelling in the Twelfth Night-esque sexuality questions that plague Sinbad as his feelings for the feminine young man grow. It’s a beautiful thing to watch and perfectly rebrands the hetero-narrative of a panto romance with an arresting metrosexual and modern twist.

Photo credit: Sharron Wallace
Photo credit: Sharron Wallace

Rounding off the band of heroes is Funky the Monkey, puppeteered and performed by Gemma Salter. Funky is clearly an inclusion for the younger viewers, and yet Salter fills the puppet with a cheeky irrepressible charm that reveals a performance of precision and an undeniable skill for the medium. After the first few minutes, Salter disappeared, and the puppet came to life, and that I think, is a truly magical achievement. Salter is blessed with an electric stage presence that delivers nuanced and poignant comedy. She convivially scampers across the stage with a delightful charm, imbuing Funky with all the qualities that a young person could want in their best friend. 

Ben Goffe plays the Sultan, father to the Princess, but it’s in his other character-based roles where he truly shines. Whether as an off-shore delivery man, a nine-headed monster, or a soul-singing genie, he emanates a versatile and capricious glee. Goffe and Josephine Melville (Clanker and Sultana) also provide one of the most beautiful and stylish tap routines, harkening back to the halcyon days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers – a moment both tragic and uplifting.

Johnny Amobi is the Nurse, and whilst this role is presumably supposed to fill the “dame” requirement, Amobi has transcended the casting and delivered a multi-layered and deeply faceted performance that perhaps would be more suited to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It offers a modern take on the role, and perhaps a much needed representation of trans-issues for the medium. He is not simply a man in a dress, he is a force of acceptance and discovery, and should be applauded for creating a loveable, twerking-winking-singing queen of the comebacks.

The set is simple in nature, and has a certain charm in the sense of its nod to kitsch and gaudiness, often drawing back to let the actors have full use of the space. Particular kudos must go to special effects consultant Scott Penrose, whose use of high-calibre magic stage effects were truly spell-binding at points and incredibly effective at selling the more supernatural elements of the production. There were slightly too many points where lights were shone directly in the audience’s faces to cover a trick – the creatives should have faith perhaps in their own illusory skills and not seek to hide so much of what is a fantastically designed production in terms of its business.

In its final moments, Sinbad the Sailor reminds us through its closing song that there is more that connects us than that which divides us, that we are all one people, and our strength is at its zenith when we are united. And, in the last days of 2016, this seems incredibly timely and well-judged.  Stratford East have a pantomime that is hilarious, warm and filled with heart – but most of all, its message for us right now is a vital one.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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