7 December 2023
So, as Winter follows Autumn, each year the pantomime season arrives; a season which lasts an indefinite length as Spring and Summer pantos become more popular. This multi-million pound industry has become extraordinarily important to theatres and venues throughout the land; a guaranteed big box office success is dreamed of. How many iterations of the favourites can one watch without becoming numb?
To this reviewer, it has to have a spark of originality and an abundance of enthusiasm. So, for the first panto visit of the year, it is off to the Northcott Theatre in Exeter which has over recent years – though I was not there last year – had something of a chequered history with its seasonal offering.
The locally-based physical comedy troupe, Le Navet Bete, has been draughted in to provide a solid base from which to start; their own version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ a couple of years ago was quite brilliant. The Northcott is a modest sized theatre and doesn’t lean on ‘celebrity’ names to sell the annual pantomime, nor does it have the capacity for huge dynamic sets etc, but with ticket sales soaring this year, these things don’t necessarily matter. This is a company of just ten performers, so don’t expect big dance numbers flooding the stage; an opening number of just two dancers isn’t the most impressive start to a show.
Ok, well the script by Le Navet Bete and Daniel Buckroyd isn’t the best; just lacking in original gags and routines and with some outdated references which fall flat, but it is pretty well family friendly and tells the story clearly. It is a bit of a game of two halves with the post-interval action very much the funnier.
There is, however, much to enjoy in this production. The sets are simple, but fun and reach a high point with the sideways-rocking ship’s galley, the location of a very funny slapstick scene where the performers slip and slide all over the place; such staples of a pantomime do not always succeed – this does, wonderfully.
The costumes are great fun – some hired and some locally made by Abigail Phillips and Beth Hallett – colourful and inventive, they are perfectly pitched. The hired backdrops are also well chosen and suit the proceedings well.
The hardworking cast are lead by the trio from Le Navet Bete; Matt Freeman has huge fun as Sarah Suet and uses his height to good effect – the regular loss of his wig is very amusing; Al Dunn as Jack uses his rubber features so well, he guarantees to get the laughs and his Elon Muskrat (yes, that’s a really good script invention) is hilariously camp; Nick Bunt makes Alderman Fitzwarren a wonderful buffoon and all three of them just know so well how to work an audience. Their comic ability provides the major part of the entertainment and it goes down very well.
Elliott Coombe and Sophia Lewis are both very likeable as Dick and Alice with Poppy Joy a suitably wise Sox the Cat. Jodie Micciché and Stephanie Lysé have fun as Fairy Bowbells and Queenie Rat respectively. The ensemble of Molly Cheesley and Andrew Dillon work effectively, and very hard, throughout. The songs are put over pretty well with some nice vocals.
Lighting was efficient, though without a great deal of magic about it and the sound balance was occasionally off as the pre-recorded soundtrack drowned out voices.
Alex Jackson directs very effectively with a keen eye on keeping the show moving at pace which he does successfully; there are no over indulgences and at just over two hours it is the perfect length.
This may not be the most spectacular show you will see this panto season and lacks the element of magic, it is not packed with reality TV stars (thank heavens), but it is visually very entertaining and Le Navet Bete’s brand of complete silliness winning over the enthusiastic audience, so I highly recommend it.
Cast & Creatives
Alderman Fitzwarren – Nick Bunt
Dick Whittington – Elliott Coombe
Jack/Elon Muskrat – Al Dunn
Sarah Suet – Matt Freeman
Sox the Cat – Poppy Joy
Alice Fitzwarren – Sophia Lewis
Queenie Rat – Stephanie Lysé
Fairy Bowbells – Jodie Micciché
Ensemble – Molly Cheesley, Andrew Dillon
Writers – Le Navet Bete. Daniel Buckroyd
Director – Alex Jackson
Choreography – Kim Healey
Musical Director – Izzie Winter
Lighting – Marcus Bartlett
Sound – Nikki Crowley
Image – Craig Fuller