Whilst we grumble about the retailers ever present decorations or cheesy Boney M in-store music, the true start of the festive season has always been signaled by the annual Pantomime at the JoBurg Theatre.
For an incredible 30 odd years Janice Honeyman has been staging Panto’s for the South African public, most likely a record outside of the UK. For those un-initaited into the world of Pantomime the combination of cheesy jokes and one liners are tied together (very) loosely by a storyline themed around a fairy tale of choice.
The script is then peppered with popular songs for the youngsters in the audience and sneaky double entendres to keep the grown ups entertained.
It clearly takes a very specific skill to pen a panto from scratch and in the all new production now on at the Joburg Theatre, Honeyman draws on this 30 years of experience to deliver the goods.
The absolute beauty of a panto is entrenched it it’s child like cardboard cut-out world. It is indeed wild escapism at its best, always entertaining and should never take itself too seriously. The well paced and genuinely entertaining script does the job well of introducing the impressive cast of all-rounders and TV celebs.
Pantos are often ensemble pieces, and this years’ offering is no exception.
A talented chorus hold their own against some heavy hitting A list TV talent including the hilarious Desmond Dube as Friar Tuck. Carmen Pretorius shows her amazing vocal range as Maid Marion leaving you wanting more, and a slightly nervous Izak Davel in the title role of Robin Hood seemed to find his feet in the second act.
Two legends of the South African performing arts both deliver outstanding panto performances in this years production. Graham Hopkins appears in his third panto appearance in as many decades, and damn does he deliver. The panto villain is the benchmark of a great production and Hopkins delivers a deliciously evil villain with just enough sass to encourage the appropriate Boo and Hiss moments (admittedly prompted by cast and orchestra) without ever moving into Amateur Dramatic Ham territory.
A remarkably rounded performance.
“Equally impressive is the legendary Kate Normington who seems to genuinely enjoy the opportunity to just let her hair down and play with the fun and frivolous material. She shines in every scene and her casual comedic characterizations bely the impeccable comic timing underpinning a captivating performance as the Panto’s somewhat dysfunctional narrator, the Spirit of the Forrest.”
The panto dame is for me a benchmark of any Panto and LJ Urbani in his first outing in the wig and frock tries his best to stand out in the very busy show. I felt the Dame needed more airtime and Urbani never really had the opportunity to make a big impact, a pity given his raw talent and experience.
The sets and costumes imported from the UK, the undisputed home of the panto, are as spectacular as one would expect and truly add to the overall production values.
I have to admit though that there is in my opinion a secret weapon in the production mix.
With easily 100 different musical queues and (at a guess) at least 50 to 60 popular songs worked into the 12 impressive production numbers the musical direction of Rowan Bakker easily stands out as one of the unsung hero’s (see what I did there) of this years offering.
Moments of genuine musical brilliance permeate the production with surprisingly subtle thematic nuances sneaking into the score, as prominent as the sledgehammer blunt big sing-along musical moments.
In conclusion it is difficult to be over analytical of a pantomime. It’s meant to be theatrical candy floss. Quick, fun, fast and frivolous. Robin Hood & the Babes in the Wood hits all these marks and more. It is as slick as it is silly.
And I suppose that’s the point.
“Directly in front of me was a 5 year old so small he had two booster seats, yet we watched enthralled as for over 2 hours this youngster was entranced by the music, lights, singing, dancing and cartoon cut out characters.”
“More importantly one more youngster is growing up with a cultural appreciation for the vast skill and entertainment value of the theatre, and that has to be a good thing for the future of the performing arts.”
And thats a good thing! The performing arts are a vital part of our cultural heritage and in an era of downloads and on-demand viewing the Panto reminds us of why we should all make time to feel good about ourselves, whatever the reason.
In the day and age of immediate gratification it’s important to switch off and escape for a while into a land of cartoon horses, fart gags and some of the best talent to take to a Pantomime stage in as long as I can remember.
Robin Hood and the Babes in the Wood runs at the JoBurg Theatre until 31 December.
Take the kids, take the family, but make sure you see this one.
You wont be disappointed!