Panto is the season for daytime TV stars and sportsmen past their fighting prime to don outrageous costumes and deliver hackneyed dialogue. Because you can get away with stunt casting when the material is so guileless, right? Well, yet again, Greenwich Theatre proves that you don’t need the dazzling white smile of a B-list celebrity on your poster to turn out a top-class Christmas show, and – if anything – casting aptitude over notability is proof enough that pantomime can produce a great show rather than just a 'colour-by-numbers' format and chance to see your favourite has-been on the stage.
You can't settle because just when you think you've seen all the panto tricks, round the corner comes a singing owl to throw you off track and laugh like a child.
Set in the idyllic mountain village of Merryvale - a sort of maritime Greenwich misplaced in the Swedish Alps - Little Red (Kirsty Marie Ayers) saves forest spirit Silvana (Dawnita Smith) and is rewarded with a red cape that bestows the power of invisibility on the wearer (not by chance here the recognisable Harry Potter reference that immediately gets the kids watching on board). Meanwhile villain Count Fracula (Anthony Spargo - bringing memories of Rik Mayall to his 'baddy-ness') is plotting to tear down the village in order to exploit the natural gas reserves buried deep below (no prizes for guessing which method - and the related innuendo - that his name alludes to). Back in the village, innkeeper Herr Brush (Martin Johnston) may have no visible guests but seems to be the local employment office - finding work for new arrivals Piggy Smalls (Alim Jayda) and his two sisters, as well as 'woodcutter' Arden (Alex Spinney) who - no plot spoiler here - is actually the Prince in disguise (as he tells us in loud 'asides' at every eventuality). Completing the line-up of main players is larger-than-life Granny Fanny (Andrew Pollard), who has held the deeds to the little theatre in the woods for the last 10 years (which just so happens to be the same amount of time Pollard has been creating the pantos for Greenwich Theatre!), so standing in the way of the evil Fracula's money-making plans. Supporting the cast are the extremely lithe and always euphoric ensemble, Charlotte Radcliffe, Chloe-Francis Thomas, Charlie Bassett-Cross and Leo Rowell – the latter couple in the tightest pair of short-shorts I think I’ve ever witnessed.
You may have noticed there’s not an awful lot of Perrault’s original Red Riding Hood tale in the story so far, and indeed the whole ‘my, what big eyes you have’ business only happens briefly in the second act - along with the Three Little Pigs tale, thrown in for good fairytale measure. But no matter, it's purely a recognisable character on which to hang Andrew Pollard’s much more interesting and clever script that brims with originality, whilst still ticking every box required to be classic panto we all know. A simple plot for the kids to follow, but sophisticated enough to keep adults engaged at every turn – the Holy Grail of any pantomime.
All the tropes of the genre are here. The seemingly anarchic proceedings obliterate the fourth wall to make the audience as much a part of the show as the cast. Even the usual inclusion of mainly current chart hits that are thinly wedged into the plot avoid being little more than just X Factor karaoke sounding average cover versions by including something unique that can't fail to get the grown-ups laughing whilst the kids singalong (I'm confident you've never seen a Jess Glynne track backed by owls - and made laugh out loud funny for being so). It takes a lot to get this jaded reviewer onto his feet joining in with a singalong but - whilst the song choice rather odd in context of the rest of the show - they construct such an infectious atmosphere it’s practically impossible not to participate.
As mistress-of-ceremonies, Pollard is sublime. He spends much of his time trying to corpse other cast members, but clearly knows where the line is – never leaving the audience out of an in joke.
Alongside the expected shout-outs, dance steps, double-entendres and the right balance of repetition to make us feel included rather than bored, Pollard also sprinkles in some fresh ideas such as a shadow play in 3D (complete with the 3D glasses for everyone) and sawing someone in half live on stage! It’s these twists and turns that, amongst all the gag callbacks and ‘oh no you don’t’s', help the two and a half hours race by and keep it feeling fresh and interesting - you can't settle because just when you think you've seen all the panto tricks, round the corner comes a singing owl to throw you off track and laugh like a child.
The cast is universally exceptional. Ayer’s Little Red is sweet without being saccharine; Spinney’s vocals as prodigious as his eyebrows (ask the Dame!); Spargo's Count Fracula dripping in diabolical camp and Jayda’s Piggy Smalls – amazingly always believable as a fame-seeking pig – more than a match for the outrageous antics of Granny Fanny.
Cleo Pettitt’s set is more than impressive, having the benefit of a large revolve to transport us to all the various locations in Merryvale and the forest - all beautifully colourful and evocative in their cartoon style illustrative design. Ingeniously lit by Chris Withers, you sense you’re getting your money’s worth and seeing much more than just a "local panto" with the high production values on display.
The moral of Little Red Riding Hood is that of not talking to strangers, but here Pollard not-so-subtly drives home the point that theatres are not just for Christmas. Support the stage throughout the year, or it may not be around for the next panto.