I went to the panto last night. “Oh no you didn’t!” Well, no, I didn’t so much go to the panto, as go to a melange of lots of different pantomimes. Crackers is the Belgrade Theatre’s alternative Christmas show, one aimed at a grown-up audience and combining elements of many familiar festive favourites. Written by Forbes Masson, it’s fabulous and funny yet also rather dark and macabre in places, a combination that means it’s not really suitable for children.
Leonard, wonderfully played by Daniel Curtis, is working on Christmas Eve in Archibald Myrrh’s mini-mart. The shop is a cornucopia of all that is commercial and ugly about the festive season; it’s pricey (beans at a scandalous £1 a tin) and tacky and Leonard is trapped there by a combination of debt and depression. But then a chance encounter with a strange old lady called Barbara Cadabara and her mobility scooter changes Leonard’s life completely. Barbara is somewhat confused after an earlier bump on the head; she tries to give Leonard a sense of hope for his future by giving him a magical golden ticket, but she is scared off by the Scrooge-like Archibald Myrrh who robs her of her festive cheer.
Many familiar pantomime characters and conventions are accounted for. Barbara, also played by Masson, takes on the role of Dame/Fairy Godmother while Geoffrey Freshwater skilfully plays Archibald Myrrh as a typical panto baddie; his daughter Miriam, played by Jenny Bede, is the princess in distress while Curtis plays Leonard as a Prince Charming figure with a dash of Buttons thrown in for good measure, unable to make the positive changes required to escape his miserable existence.
As the evening progresses the characters’ relationship with reality becomes increasingly skewed, the Fairy Godmother becomes a Fairy Gothmother and the mood shifts from one that’s light-hearted and fun to one that’s far darker, almost maliciously so. The production rattles along, pushing its characters into a Faustian deal with the devil, a psychedelic mind trip and a steamy clinch before reaching its climax. As with more traditional panto the cast use audience participation to great effect, and there are mentions of familiar local landmarks as well as the obligatory topical gags about cats in wheelie bins. Even the moment when one of the characters attempts suicide is done with a degree of humour and is in keeping with the show’s sharp edged approach.
Michael Fentiman’s production makes good use of original music (also by Masson) and rapid costume changes to create an entertaining atmosphere. The plot moves from the surreal to the outrageous, with the inclusion of an inflatable doll nativity and Rapunzel’s hair extensions, and the whole thing hinges successfully on the interweaving of the familiar and comfortable with something more subversive and bizarre if not wholly original.