He’s Behind You!

Star Wards — Addenbrooke’s Panto 2013 — Mumford Theatre, 19-23 Nov 2013

The Princess and the Pea — ADC/Footlights Panto 2013 — ADC Theatre, 27 Nov-7 Dec 2013

Panto season is well and truly upon us (“Oh no it’s not!” “Oh yes it is!” etc. etc. etc…) — in fact at Cambridge University, where students celebrate ‘Bridgemas’ before November is even over and done with, the panto season is really in its twilight days. Still unwilling to cut off my link with the student theatre scene totally, I took a nostalgic trip back to Cambridge to brave the cold and check out a couple of the students’ panto efforts this year, taking in the renowned Cambridge Footlights with The Princess and the Pea, and the annual offering from the medical students of Addenbrooke’s, this year entitled Star Wards.

These are, as you might expect, two very different shows. While the ADC/Footlights Panto keeps just about on the right side of family friendly, catering for locals and tourists as well as the students who race to get tickets, the Addenbrooke’s show is very much adults only, and mostly attracts an audience of medical students (with a smattering of vets for good measure, of course). In addition, the Footlights are known for their high standards of acting, singing, comedy and music, while the majority of these medics take to the stage once a year for a bit of silliness for charity (in this case, Blue Smile and the Addenbrooke’s Charitable Trust).

I was therefore very pleasantly surprised by Star Wards. I have to admit, I thought my chances of understanding any of the jokes were pretty limited — I have an arts degree, so expected all the medical humour to pass me by, and let’s just say I’d be an ideal guest on that Radio 4 show I’ve Never Seen Star Wars… Despite all this, this band of future doctors (is that a slightly worrying thought having seen their antics on stage?) had me in stitches (my attempt at a medical pun… sorry) from start to finish. To capture the show briefly for you, the pretty confusing and farcical plot follows the quest of Leukocyte Cloudstroller, a wannabe Medi knight from the planet MidStaffoine, and his companion Jean Solo as they team up with a motley crew including Princess Cleia, Obgyn Kenobi, Chewbacca, MRCPO and OBS2D2 to help the ClinSoc Rebellion defeat the evil Darth Vagus and his Private Healthcare Empire, thereby restoring the GHS (Galactic Health Service, of course). Following it so far? No, me neither to be honest, but what does the plot really matter when the whole thing is so much fun?

Laughs come thick and fast, and the medical in-jokes are balanced out by humour that even an arts graduate like me can get on board with. The whole cast should be congratulated on some fantastic performances, but stand-outs include Laksha Bala as the Thatcher-esque Empress, Sam Bostock as Gallic flirt Jean Solo, Jonny Tham as the requisite Dame Obgyn Kenobi, and of course the brilliant Tim Old as Darth Vagus. Part Freddie Mercury, part Rocky Horror Picture Show, he strutted around the stage with swagger and confidence (you’ve got to be pretty confident to pull off that costume, after all) and had the audience in hysterics. Yes, there were a few problems, most notably that the sound balance meant the orchestra drowned out the chorus. But what is most impressive about this show is the sheer scale of it. Some of the cast are regulars on the student stages, but this ensemble is not a full-time theatre troupe — yet over 150 people together wrote the show, adapted the music, created the costumes and sets, provided the soundtrack and performed for four nights for charity. And being clinical medical students, they’re all pretty busy to say the least. Seriously impressive stuff.

From one show that exceeded all expectations, to another that sadly failed to live up to them. Previous Footlights Pantos have blown me away with their all-singing, all-dancing, laugh-a-minute performances; 2011’s Treasure Island was probably the most fun I ever had at the ADC, and certainly led to one of my gushiest reviews to date. Sadly, this year’s The Princess and the Pea doesn’t hit the mark.

Credit: James Bowe

Firstly, the plot of this fairy tale leaves a lot of work to be done to flesh it out into a full show. The fact that the script writers tried to stretch it out into nearly three hours of panto was certainly an error, as there just isn’t enough there to carry the show for that long — the tale of a long lost princess, a soppy and lonely prince looking for love, a baking-obsessed evil queen and the banishment of a Viking race certainly feels on uncertain ground compared to the productions of recent years. There is a half-hearted attempt to transform this into self-deprecating humour (on the subject of using a pea to detect a true princess: “It’s a strange system, but it works”), but all in all this isn’t enough to distract from the plot’s weaknesses. Particularly in the second half, some scenes really drag, despite the cast’s best efforts to maintain the high levels of energy so necessary in a panto.

There are some comedy highlights: Emma Powell steals the show as Queen Olga, again proving her mettle as a fantastic character actress and comedienne, and supporting cast member Luke Sumner provides one of the funniest turns of the night, milking his faux-Swedish accent for every possible drop of comedy. Henry Jenkinson also gives a solid performance as the Dame, while Rosa Robson is on her usual strong form as Buttons, parachuted in from his usual role in Cinderella to boost the plot a little. Unfortunately, heroine of the show Lenor (played by Maria Pawlikowska) fails to shine bright enough as the star of the show. Perhaps she has been let down by the script, but Lenor is neither funny enough nor endearing enough to really get the audience on side: whether you’re a kid or just a big kid masquerading as an adult, panto should sweep you along with its magic and get you cheering and booing along with he best of them. For me, The Princess and the Pea falls short of inspiring this enthusiasm.

Elsewhere, the set is inspired — the revolving, intricate scenery is the most ambitious I’ve seen in a student production, and the attention to detail is remarkable. Sadly, the practicalities of this mean that set changes are painfully slow, and the actors don’t wait: more often than not, the set is still being shifted while a scene is in full swing. Hopefully this will have improved as the run continues, as it’s certainly a distraction for the audience, and undermines the usual professionalism we’ve come to expect from the Footlights panto each year. The musical number ‘Make It or Fake It’ is a highlight amongst a largely forgettable score, and allows Rosa Robson in particular to show off her fantastic vocals.

I certainly went into the ADC/Footlights Panto with high expectations, based on the wonderful shows that have emerged in recent years; perhaps then, the panto has become a victim of its own success, as when it doesn’t reach the dazzling heights of its predecessors there is great disappointment. Yet Star Wards somehow had that indefinable ‘magic’ about it that The Princess and the Pea failed to achieve, and completely blew away all my preconceptions about the medics’ panto. Perhaps they have the advantage of a lack of pretension, and also a lack of pressure, but to my mind it was Star Wards that achieved the hilarity and warmth that panto needs. I can only hope that the Footlights will be back to their magical best next year.

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