ADC/Footlights Panto 2013: The Princess and the Pea

CHLOE COLEMAN is certain that this year’s ADC/Footlights Panto is deserving of its hype.

ADC Ben Pope chloe coleman footlights panto Henry Jenkinson Maria Pawlikowska the princess and the pea

ADC Theatre, 7.45pm, Wed 27th Nov – Sat 7th Dec (except 1st), £12/10

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Week Eight is upon us, meaning one thing – it’s perfectly legitimate to get excited about Bridgemas. ‘Tis the season for that final crap-but-I’ve-stopped-caring essay, squabbling over roast potatoes in hall and Sainsbury’s Basics mince pies, but these traditions must make room for another – The Footlights Panto.

The Footlights have had a bit of a bad press of late. Smoker reviews invariably contain the phrase ‘mixed bag’, but there was no evidence of this tonight – the entire cast was on top form for this year’s offering, The Princess and the Pea.

For those unfamiliar with this fairy-tale classic, the plot revolves around the charmingly perky Lenor (Maria Pawlikowska), a washerwoman/princess who must prove her legitimacy to marry the soppy Prince Sebastian (Ben Pope) through her ability to feel a pea under a stack of mattresses – ‘a strange system, but it works.’ The silliness of the plot is transformed into genuine hilarity precisely by exploiting its ridiculousness, playing up to the absurdity of the genre and placing the emphasis firmly on entertainment.

And we certainly were entertained. Audience-pleasing panto-favourites were retained to great effect, albeit in a slightly more unusual form – the role of the innuendo-spouting drag queen is fulfilled by Henry Jenkinson as chief washerwoman Barbra Zier (‘it’s a pun’), who, contrary to most pantomime dames, is both integral to the plot and rendered a sympathetic, almost believable character. Add to that the substitution of the pantomime horse for what the programme calls an ‘acrobatic squirrel’ and socks instead of sweets thrown at the audience and you’re left with a production worthy of its hype.

Everything about The Princess and the Pea seemed to fit together. The songs were big, musical theatre-esque ensemble numbers with lyrics in keeping with the charmingly funny script – as is often the case with productions like this, the lyrics sometimes were lost in the music, but frankly, who cares? I would hate to be accused of ‘typical Tab nit-picking’, and besides, the appeal of the panto is in its sheer scale – I counted a solid seven set changes, each of which undertaken with astounding fluidity. Each set strikes a balance between intricacy and attention to detail without proving to be a distraction from the action on stage – the helpful hands coming through the wall in the Evil Queen’s kitchen are a prime example, with details such as this lending the production its fairy-tale charm.

The real strength of the panto, however, was in its cast. There was not a single weak performance – even minor characters were brought to life with an infectious energy. If I had time to commend each actor individually, I would, but special recognition should go to Emma Powell as the baddie Queen Olga with her ‘delicious and malicious’ mind-control soufflé. Powell was totally, hilariously, loveably evil and definitely held her own during musical numbers. In fact, the singing was of high quality throughout – Rosa Robson as the unlikely hero/revolutionary Buttons was particularly impressive in this respect, her jailhouse solo at one point replacing the audience’s near-continuous laughter with an awed silence.

I know I sound like I’m gushing, but there’s reason to – the scale of the production, coupled with the strength of all individual performances meant that there was always something to laugh at. Yes, the majority of jokes weren’t exactly innovative and yes, there were a few too many ‘He’s behind you!’s but it was a lot of fun, which undoubtedly is the point of pantomime. The ADC/Footlights Panto is back on form this year – don’t miss out.