Thursday, December 01, 2011



The New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
Enjoying a warming home-made parsnip soup from the Café Bar, I watch the crowd arrive. For all their paper hats, their popcorn and their massive bags of sweeties, they're a discerning crowd. They expect to laugh and boo, of course; they'll want a dame and a baddie, but this X-factor generation will also demand production values as high as any concert or West End musical.
The Wolsey has found the perfect recipe to keep them happy in its Rock and Roll pantos, of which this is, unbelievably, the eleventh incarnation. All the ingredients are carefully selected: a super-talented team of actor musicians, a score of toe-tapping numbers, more or less tailored to the plot, and audience involvement [which means getting wet, or picked on, or both – Brian in A3 an excellent stooge when I saw the show].
The Nottingham castle ramparts are bristling with brass, drum-kit and guitars, as Blondel the troubadour bounces on to get the action started – Hippy Hippy Shake an ideal choice for an opening number. Other musical highlights were Goldfinger, and Natural Woman, featuring a seven-piece band and two backing singers.
Many favourites in the cast list – Shirley Darroch a demure Maid Marian, really looking as if she was enjoying every minute of the silliness. Anthony Hunt the exquisitely evil Sherriff of Nottingham, with excellent work from his two henchmen "moronic mingers" Steve Simmonds and Tim Jackson, whose Numbskull was a winner with the audience. Robin Hood – an athletic Alex Tomkins – sang his numbers with some style, and like everyone else, managed to keep just a little bit in character as he belted out The Clash's I Fought The Law.
Will Kenning makes a most welcome return as the Dame – Nellie Nightnurse with her trolleyful of amusing ailments. Towering over everyone else in the cast, he has a fresh, original take on this age-old tradition, his character caught between the bovver boots and the comedy hair. As regulars will know, all the actors take their turn in the backing band – Will moved from trombone to guitar to keyboard. His charges – Britney and Whitney the Babes [Essex girls in all but name] - were nicely done by Sioned Saunders and Sophie Byrne [saxophonists both].
Nice to see another chorus of soft toys – this time including a cuddly Rockin' Robin.
So something for everyone in Peter Rowe's panto, directed by Rob Salmon – tinies squealing with delight at the simplest slapstick, a clever, alliterative script, with nudge-nudge naughtiness for the grown-ups, and, for us oldies, nostalgic references to Bernie the Bolt and Dick James's unforgettable theme tune, thoughtfully reprised between scenes.
As Dame Nellie put it – "bad gags, mad frocks and relentless upstaging" – who could ask for more for Christmas ?

this piece first appeared on The Public Reviews

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