Provided you’re able to leave the house, it’s panto season and York is spoiled for choice. Long-running dame Berwick Kaler is back after a swan-song final performance, a swan-song final script and a very public break with York Theatre Royal with a new residence at the Grand Opera House and the same cohort of supporting cast in Dick Turpin Rides Again. York Theatre Royal, on the other hand, has sought help from pantomime production company Evolution including writer/producer Paul Hendy for their Cinderella, marking a clean start with new faces and a shiny proscenium arch.
Now, there’s an instinct here to duke out the two performances but we’re living in a world where current culture secretary Nadine Dorries believes lefty snowflakes like yours truly are, among myriad crimes, “dumbing down panto”. It’s therefore my critical mission to assess this double-bill offering with the respect it deserves.
We all know, of course, that pantomime likely derives from the Tudor festive tradition, the Feast of Fools. This feast was renowned for four characters: Disguise, Imbibing alcohol, Celebration and generally things Kicking off. (Look, it’s no “charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent” but I don’t have the time that Drag Race staff do.) I’m slightly skewing these to fit more modern traditions, providing like-for-like comparison.
One more thing: I’m really spelling this out because what’s a huge part of pantomime? Audience participation! That’s right. I’ve bolded some call and response at regular intervals in case you want to join in. It’s something to do, isn’t it?
Panto is basically a jukebox musical that doesn’t take itself as seriously, and it’s a great way to create tonal shorthand with an otherwise basic plot. Cinderella’s overture includes Bring Me Sunshine, One Night Only and Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: all bangers. However, the romantic ballad hits a stumbling block when Cinderella (Faye Campbell) and her Prince (Benjamin Lafayette) are overshadowed by aerialists Duo Fusion. Campbell’s beautiful vocals feel criminally underused here, evidenced by the applause mid-song for the dancers behind her.
Dick Turpin Rides Again has a song list including Taylor Swift, Dolly Parton and Prom, where the ensemble earnestly tell the audience that “this show belongs to you”. Not to mention the return of sea shanties — they’re ear worms, if nothing else, and that’s enough to lodge the show in the mind for the walk home.
Who did it better? It’s close, but I reckon Dick Turpin has it.
Weird Flying Bit
This is a staple, right? We’ve come a long way from the UV-painted cloaks which used to recreate a flying hoard in the nineties: now it’s all hydraulics and cherry pickers. Both pantos favour Pegasi for their show-stopper act one closer: whilst Dick Turpin (Daniel Conway)’s horse Peggy is missing actual wings, the smaller stage and tech work by The Twins FX means that his flying getaway is incredibly impressive for being able to conceal the trick more easily.
Andy Furey’s technical stage management in Cinderella gets loads of FX sorted across the board, floating sets and a very welcome digital cameo included, but I wish they’d concealed that lift underneath Cinderella’s glittering carriage.
Who did it better? Dick Turpin!
Ad lib capacity
Here’s where the tables turn. The nature of this format invites audience interaction and that means a great panto will be cast with people who can respond quickly when the yells aren’t just “oh no he isn’t”. Running with the unruliness is something which Kaler purports to specialise in, but it’s almost always on his terms. Derailing his castmates and dotting the script with references to how little sense the show is making are a great facade for spontaneity, but it’s clear that when faced with a rogue butterfly on stage, Kaler has a limited sense of how to respond to the unexpected. He pauses the scene with nary a pithy one-liner, which suddenly leaves the show dangling by a thread. If anybody picks up on this weakness, it’s the kids who during the second act start climbing on the seats and telling characters to shut up.
Cinderella’s cast, on the other hand, is rich with quick-witted comic performers. Max Fulham turns a Cinderella-Buttons heart to heart into an impromptu ventriloquy routine when a fly keeps distracting him, ending in an absolutely killer punchline. Seeing a moment like this shows how comfortable the cast are, able to rely on a strong if simple plot when they want to cut loose into several jokey asides. The puns are good, but Andy Day’s reactions to the audience are golden. The show fizzes with fun and it’s absolutely infectious.
Who did it better? Cinderella, no contest!
It’s safe to say that both shows offer up Disguise, Imbibing of Alcohol (or at least, the excellent ad-lib from Paul Hawkyard’s ugly sister Mardy, “Alright, alright, we’ve all had a drink!”), Celebration and generally stuff Kicking off (trials, runaway princesses, corpsing akimbo). However, I keep going back to that audience participation. Hendy’s script clearly signposts the expected tropes and call-and-response requests, as well as a constant reference to a magical button which has the children behind me speculating in the interval. Kaler leaves us to guess a little, beyond the obvious expectation that we’ll cheer for his Dotty Donut on every entry. Despite the entreaty that Dick Turpin Rides Again “belongs to you”, we’re given little evidence that it does. It’s a definite step back from the cult of personality which ran rife in 2018’s Grand Old Dame of York, but Kaler’s show still feels closed off to the newcomer. York Theatre Royal know this, and Cinderella is waiting with open arms to welcome younger audience members. To me, that’s the key demographic for panto: for loads of children it’s their first exposure to live performance. Which would you rather, your kids invited in or told to come back when they get the Wagon Wheel reference?
Cinderella runs at York Theatre Royal until 2nd January 2022. Dick Turpin Rides Again runs at Grand Opera House, York until 9th January 2022.