Dick Whittington – and – Sleeping Booty
The newly reopened Bridge House Theatre in Penge is celebrating Christmas with a pair of pantos – one for children and the other for adults using almost the same cast. I saw them consecutively on the venue’s gala night. And, seeing two pantos in one evening, I can report first that it’s like watching a traditional rep company or being at Edinburgh and is therefore a pretty powerful showcase for versatility. Second, it’s an experience almost as long as seeing an uncut Hamlet. We started at 6pm and finished just before 11pm. If nothing else, it speaks volumes for actor energy.
The first half of Dick Whittington, set mostly in a Penge fish and chip shop, is stronger than the second in which some of the incidents and numbers are a bit protracted. I quite liked the “educated” jokes such as the running alliteration gag and I admired the use of uncompromising vocabulary: “Nubile” and “most verbose of vermin” for instance. That said, the whole show is a bit wordy for young children.
The reactions, though, tell their own story. The playing space at the Bridge House is a simple, informal square, with seats on three sides and no larger than the average classroom. The complete absence of any semblance of a fourth wall makes the children feel effortlessly included. One boy (maybe 9) put his hand up and demanded of Steve Banks (good) as Rattigan, the dastardly rat, “Who exactly are you?” At the end a very small girl (probably under three) took over the space near her front row seat and happily joined in the dancing. It certainly keeps cast members on their toes.
Sleeping Booty – in which co-writer Brendan Matthews gives us a menacing Wagnerian-horned Carabosse is, of course, a very different sort of show. In a sense “adult pantomime” is a contradiction in terms but it worked for the audience I saw it with who showed their enjoyment with gales of raucous laughter at the many sex jokes, the funniest of which was a series of escalating sweet puns delivered by George Lennan with nicely judged nuance and timing. Lennan, incidentally, is interesting to watch as two contrasting dames. His Dame Sarah is funny and ridiculous without being especially camp. By the time we’re over the 9pm watershed his Queen Constance is up several notches with lots of filthy flirtatiousness.
But the best thing in Sleeping Booty is Alex White delivering a hilarious but understated Bojo. Nothing as cheap or obvious as a blonde wig but he has all the gestures, umming and erring and mannerisms perfectly especially the very serious injured tone. He is also fun as Tom Cook the straight guy in Dick Whittington and I like his singing.
Ellie Walsh is an outstanding actor. She brings oodles of panache and neat dancing skills to a Dick who manages to be charismatic without too much swashbuckling or thigh slapping. And her sweary King Cole, catching eyes in the audience and stomping around crossly is excellent.
I also reckoned Olivia Penhallow’s cheerful cheeky cat (good singing voice) but I was less taken with her work as narrator in the second show. Sarah Louise Hughes screams, shouts and pulls faces, first as a drunken Fairy Good and later as a very spoiled Princess Aurora, among other roles. It’s initially amusing but soon gets wearisome because it’s relentless. She should have been directed to dial it down occasionally.
There is no space at The Bridge House for a built set but it is learning to do clever things with projection on its back wall. Simon Nicholas’s projection mapping gives us, among other things Penge East Station with a moving train, a desert island and a castle with bats.
Luke Adamson and Joseph Lindoe have done a marvellous job in getting Bridge House Theatre up, fitted and running again in its new upstairs space. It would have been a challenge at any time but they’ve achieved it against the pandemic. I wish them all the best for the new year and look forward to seeing more shows there soon – whether “received” or home produced.