at the Mercury Theatre Colchester
Foxton's fabulous set design has a leafy beanstalk stage right, ominous fiery thunderclouds stage left. So far so traditional, but Janice Dunn's original panto for the Mercury begins not with a bang and a flash, but with the gentle bamboo flute of Clare Humphrey's Xena, the compelling storyteller who'll draw us in to this moral tale of a giant who plunges the world into darkness.
It's a witty, intelligent script, and the pace is swift – no gag is stretched, no words are wasted. Loads of inventive twists to keep the story fresh: Dame Trott has an icecream business, and her frocks reflect the flavours on offer, from a 99 to a banana split for the wedding party, which this year has an Olympic theme. The magic beans are flushed away, so the substantial beanstalk rises in triumph from the Trott's Ikea karzi. And if you ever wondered if a cow could ride a stop-me-and-buy-one invalid scooter ... Plenty of slapstick for the kids, too, including an enormous custard pie, and lots of clever detail, like the finger in the elevator door.
Daisy the Cow is the cue for a barrage of bovine jokes, and two singalong opportunities, including that threatened species, the kids plucked from the audience. There's also a vent doll Baby Daisy, and, for the sharp-eyed, an even tinier Daisy poking out from Simple Simon's pyjama pocket. The Giant is memorably done – first as an ominous disembodied voice, then speaking through the mouth of others, and finally appearing as a huge, spectacularly spooky puppet – brought to life by Lyndi Smith.
Something of an end-of-season knees-up feel to this show, with actors who've made 2012 such a successful year for the Mercury allowing themselves one final panto fling. Christine Absalom [Arsenic and Old Lace] makes a wonderful Queen Marj, Clare Humphrey [Top Girls] is Xena, David Tarkenter [Absent Friends]
plays a mean Fleshcreep, with Tim Freeman [Arsenic and Old Lace] as his dimmer sidekick Goosebump, and Ignatius Anthony [Dancing at Lughnasa] is a flamboyant Shakira Trott, seemingly enjoying every cringeworthy moment.
Elsewhere in a very strong ensemble, some welcome returning panto specialists, notably Emily Bull as Mia, Jai Vethamony as the courageous Jack, and the wonderful Dale Superville reviving his Pie Man Simple Simon.
Some impressive talent amongst the Junior Chorus, too; they are given plenty to do, including much of Charlie Morgan's demanding choreography. Familiar hits are pressed into the service of the plot – loved Farmlife, less sure about Imagine in the style of Food Glorious Food. Uncle Graeme Du Fresne is in charge in the pit, and proves a good sport too, in this infectiously funny family pantomime from the Mercury Theatre Company.