Since 2014, comedy trio The Sleeping Trees have shown us they know how to put on a great family panto. This year, they’ve gone one further and proved they don’t even need a stage. The Legend of Moby Dick Whittington is a witty, fast-paced musical adventure that’s full of surprises and will have audiences of all ages joining in from (and possibly on, behind or under) their sofas.
Dick Whittington’s celebrating his first Christmas as London’s Mayor when the unthinkable happens: a huge white whale swims up the Thames and swallows Santa Claus. Now Dick and his cat must enlist the help of marine biologist Dr Jessica Ahab (and Pinocchio, because – well, why not) and take to the high seas to find Moby Dick and save Christmas. But with a vengeful King Rat hot on their tail, can they bring Santa home safely?
This year, like everyone, The Sleeping Trees have had to adapt to a new set of circumstances, and they’ve risen to the challenge in their own inimitable style. Audiences are stuck at home, so James Dunnell-Smith, Joshua George Smith and John Woodburn have produced a Christmas living room adventure we can all participate in, with the help of just a few everyday household objects. And like all good comedy, though it’s aimed primarily at younger audience members – who will no doubt love the opportunity to build a ship in the middle of their living room – the 50-minute show has more than enough going on to keep the grown-ups entertained too (which is probably just as well in light of the aforementioned ship building).
Under Kerry Frampton’s slick and ingenious direction, no corner of the house goes unused on this madcap adventure across the ocean. Even knowing that the action’s taking place on screen instead of stage, it’s hard not to be impressed by the seemingly endless number of characters three performers can play at the same time. Said performers, meanwhile, juggle their various roles, costumes, accents and props with ease, and are clearly having just as much fun as the audience along the way.
The story – co-written with Ben Hales – is quite bonkers, but anyone familiar with The Sleeping Trees’ previous offerings (which include Cinderella and the Beanstalk and Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves) would be disappointed if it wasn’t. For parents looking for a way to entertain the kids this Christmas, look no further than this fantastic feel-good family show, which reminds even the Scroogiest of Scrooges that there’s adventure to be found anywhere if we just put our minds to it. Even if we’re stuck at home with nothing but some kitchen utensils, a few loo rolls and a bed sheet to work with.
As a forty-plus female attending this panto, I can’t deny the main draw for me was my childhood crush Marti Pellow. So I hadn’t really gone into the night with high expectations of what was to follow other than knowing I would hear some “oh no it isn’t” type of gags. I had prepared myself for familiar panto slapstick.
Wow. I had that completely wrong! The promise “Everything you could wish for in a panto” I would say underplays what we actually got. This was so much more. I hadn’t seen a Qdos production before and confess hadn’t read up about the company and am so glad I hadn’t. This was a special effects/visuals/pyrotechnics and magic spectacular and was a total surprise!
The pantomime started surreally with villain Abanazar, former Wet Wet Wet frontman Marti Pellow, talking to a giant moving mechanical King Kong – I’m not actually sure why… And from that moment on, I knew this was not any ordinary panto. Marti did an excellent job of playing a Scottish accented villain – his acting and singing were certainly on form and his gags about Dartford and the local area (spanning even to Bromley) were appreciated by the audience. I didn’t feel he was particularly villainous, but perhaps I was seeing him through rose-coloured glasses!
The cast included the hilarious Ricky K from Britain’s got Talent who was my 8-year-old son’s favourite character by far and the star of the show. His energetic slapstick comedy had the audience in stitches throughout and he did a fabulous job of getting everybody involved. Panto favourite David Robbins, playing Widow Twankey, had a fabulous rapport with Ricky K and the scene where Abanazar, Wishee Washee and Widow Twankey try their tongue twisters looking for a missing shirt was my favourite of the evening. My son was literally crying! A special mention must be made of the costume designer as Widow Twankey’s wardrobe down to her knobbly knees was inspired.
I can’t fault Alexis Gerred as Aladdin but I was surprised we didn’t have a stronger character for Stephanie Elstob as Princess Jasmine. A bit more girl power would have been nice to see – though Stephanie’s acting and singing were great and complemented Aladdin. Best singer most definitely goes to Landi Oshinowo, who played the Empress of China (sorry Marti).
Full credit should go to the stage designer as the sets were amazing – from Peking to Egypt to the treasure-filled cave – and how did they do the magic carpet, we would really like to know? We felt we were being transported into the skies and many children I imagine have come away thinking it indeed was by magic.
We were all given 3D glasses in the second half, but I hadn’t prepared for the visuals that followed. The fairly long cinematic experience had the audience screaming (they possibly need a warning for the families with very young children). From snakes to dragons to spiders to skulls… it was both spectacular and spectacularly scary! The use of new technology in this way and with the pyrotechnics and “magic” makes me interested to see where panto will go from here in the years to come. I will be back next year for sure.
Looking around, the audience, which ranged from 6 months to 80 years old, seemed to be enjoying themselves and on the way out, I didn’t see anybody who wasn’t smiling. As somebody who only really came for Marti rather than panto, I have been converted by this production. My son gave it 10/10, which says it all.
Oh, I know you are all wanting to know – did they play any Wet Wet Wet songs? I will leave you to go and find out……
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.
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-esquesexuality 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.
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… 😉
The other day, I was trying to explain to a friend from overseas what a pantomime is. I’m not sure I did a very good job; in fact I think I might have scared him a bit. And it was only when I tried to describe the concept to someone who’s never seen a panto before that I realised quite how random – not to mention incredibly British – the whole business is.
I’m not sure what my friend would make of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, this year’s festive offering at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford. Besides all the usual panto jokes and conventions, not to mention songs (it seems Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling is this year’s musical number of choice), it also stars TV’s Joe Pasquale, who’s both a much-loved British entertainer and something of an acquired taste.
Like most pantos, the show’s appeal depends primarily on that of its star – if you’re a fan, you’ll have a great time; if not, you may find it a bit hard going. Act 1 of Snow White is very much the Joe Pasquale show; all the other characters become rather secondary while he – as Snow White’s lady’s maid’s son Muddles – messes about, makes fart jokes and interrupts (at length) Snow White’s big romantic moment/mannequin challenge with the dashing Prince Calum of Kent. It’s not sophisticated humour, but we knew that going in; this is basically Joe Pasquale doing what he does best, and his trademark comedy style proves a resounding hit with kids and adults alike.
Act 2 allows the rest of the excellent cast a bit more stage time. Ceri Dupree is particularly fun as Dame Dolly Diamond, in costumes that grow increasingly outrageous and enormous as the show goes on, and Rachel Stanley is a fabulously wicked and deranged Queen Sadista. As Snow White, Victoria Serra doesn’t have a huge amount to do besides fall in love and do the dwarfs’ housework – even her poisoned apple snooze only lasts a couple of minutes – but impresses in the musical numbers with her beautiful voice. Alexis Gerred throws himself energetically into his role as love interest Prince Calum, enduring Pasquale’s playful torture with cheerful good humour, and I wish we could have seen more of the dwarfs who, despite being spectacularly un-PC, brought a cheeky charm to their reworked version of You Raise Me Up (“I now feel four foot tall”).
A couple of words of warning: there are a lot of flashing lights in the show, which are used to great effect at scene changes but can also be slightly headache-inducing. And the show may be a bit frightening for young children; I heard one little girl during the interval talking plaintively about “the scary man in the mirror”, while the 3D segment in Act 2 takes us on a mad dash through the forest and face to face with a variety of nightmarish creatures. (Think Aragog in Harry Potter 2, and you’ll get the idea.)
Technological wizardry aside, Snow White is very much a classic panto; all the familiar cheesy jokes are in there, and just because we know they’re coming it doesn’t make them any less fun (there’s also plenty of humour specifically for the adults, which – I hope – will sail right over the kids’ heads). Joe Pasquale is a likeable lead, supported by a strong and polished cast who all look like they’re having a great time. And that’s a surefire way to ensure the audience do, too.
Sleeping Trees are “comthreedians” Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith. Known for their surreal, physical and fast-paced comedy, the guys’ 2016 pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, is currently going down a storm with audiences of all ages at Battersea’s Theatre503 (check out my rave review to find out more).
“This show does to Scrooge what Pop Stars: The Rivals did to Nadine Coyle,” is the Sleeping Trees’ concise and typically unpredictable summary of their panto. After the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit, Santa’s forced to turn to an unlikely hero, Ebenezer Scrooge, to save the day. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly co-operate willingly… can an unexpected journey to Fairytale Land change his mind?
The show is a unique and hilarious mashup of several classic stories – so where did the idea come from? The guys explain: “We’ve always enjoyed playing with well-known pieces of literature. We’d wanted to adapt Dickens’ A Christmas Carol for ages, and when the opportunity came along to write another Christmas show we thought there’s no time like the [insert joke about ghost of Christmas Past] present [insert joke about Christmas future].
“It began with just a title that we thought sounded funny, and then we ran with it. Once we had a rough script – which was about 150 pages too long – we started the editing process. We have an absolutely brilliant team that helped us get it to the show it is today. Ben Hales came in first with the music and composition of all the songs and lyrics etc. Then the excellent director, Simon Evans, came on board as we continuously read from start to finish, cutting, changing and shaping as we went. All the while our costume and set designer Zahra Mansouri would be a fly on the wall and each day come in with ideas and examples that were simply mind blowing. Finally our stage, lighting and production management team brought it all to life.”
All the characters in the story are played by Josh, John and James, which unsurprisingly makes for a fast-paced and fairly chaotic two hours. “We have 18 ‘main characters’ that we visit throughout the show, plus an array – or rather an onslaught – of about 30 other pantomime and fairytale characters that make an appearance for one-off jokes or theatrical devices. It’s a lot of fun playing all of them. Tiny Tim probably wins the Sleeping Trees’ favourite – either him or a prehistoric cameo… no spoilers!”
Let’s not forget that this is a pantomime, so audiences should be prepared to get involved in all the usual – and some not so usual – ways, much to Sleeping Trees’ glee. “Oh yes, we are thrilled with the participation we’ve created for this show. It will certainly be a unique experience for every audience member coming to see it. Nothing too stressful – just a lot, a lot of fun. After all, pantomimes remind everyone it’s Christmas, and who doesn’t like Christmas? Apart from Ebenezer, but trust us, we’re working on it!”
Sleeping Trees have now been together for seven years, and are looking forward to a bright (and busy) future. “We’ve been together since 2009, making theatrical comedy shows whilst collaborating with artists, comedians and musicians, and now have nine full length productions that we tour. It started once we got a taste of the Edinburgh fringe and have been a growing brand ever since.
“The company aims to continue making comedy for stage and hopes to adapt our comedy for radio and television. We’re looking to begin touring internationally from 2017 onwards, with our latest trilogy of live action movies, Mafia? Western? and Sci-Fi? as well as writing a brand new Edinburgh Fringe show. We’re going to go back to our roots and write a stripped back show with just the three of us on stage. So the future is exciting for the entire team, and it will be our biggest tour to date, so we hope you can all come along and experience the journey with us. Merry Christmas folks.”