OK, there’s something I have to admit. It doesn’t mean I’m a killjoy, it doesn’t mean I’m no fun, but…here goes: I don’t clap along to music. In the theatre I mean, when the cast urge everyone up on their feet and you’re meant to demonstrate via hand claps that you’re having the best night of your life. I’m a veteran of the post-punk wars after all, and all that happy clappy feel-good stuff always seems too, er, light entertainment, too Seaside Special. It’s just one of those things that’s encoded into my DNA, like not lighting fireworks and never driving abroad. I just don’t do it, OK? Got that? Good.
Unfortunately, this means that when the Everyman pantomime rolls around, I have a problem. I love the Everyman panto, but I always know they’ll try and break my resolve. It’s a self-styled rock ‘n’ roll pantomime you see, it has been as long as I’ve lived in Liverpool. And that means that not only do they consistently conjure up theatre that’s unhinged and hilarious, and slushy and slick – they also stuff it full of songs plucked at random from the entire history of recorded music, or so it seems. And they pack each track with such energy – the whole cast able to swap instruments and hit every note, while also dancing, cavorting, and generally larking about – that sometimes, I just can’t help myself.
Much of its daft charm stems from the fact that this is no trend-surfing cash-in, the kind of show that might feature X-Factor outcasts doing that wibble-lipped, wobbly-hand singing. This is a bunch of celeb-free but talent-rich professionals committing shameless pop plunder; their playlist this year leaps from ELO to Queen to, unbelievably, Renée and Renato. And you know what? It’s really, completely, bloody great.
In fact in this year’s show there’s some crafty misdirection, as the evil Witch/Queen/Cruella de Vil-hybrid threatens to bust out into Do you Want to Build a Snowman? from Frozen. And you think, hold on, is that really what the Ev panto’s about? It feels like the show is breaking its own internal illogic, spurning its usual musical smash ‘n’ grab in favour of calculated Disney-fication. But in that moment when you expect the song to materialise, it doesn’t. And instead, they crash out a version of Sparks’ This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us with so much punch and verve that even Ron Mael himself would break out into a big cheesy grin. And maybe clap along too, who knows?
Three years ago I thought I’d be relieved of this clap-baiting burden when the Everyman closed – to be demolished and spectacularly rebuilt. I dared to dream that the rock ‘n’ roll panto wouldn’t survive its temporary removal to the Playhouse – an altogether more sedate venue, one that somehow wouldn’t put up with these Hope Street hooligans with their pump-action water fights, their yes-I-did-inhale plot lines, and obsession with innuendo and bottom-burps.
But alas, it was good at the Playhouse. And though, as theatre bosses Gemma Bodinetz and Deborah Aydon remind us in the programme, “Everyone, including us, kept referring to it as the Everyman rock ‘n’ roll panto,” there was a creeping sense that maybe the much-lauded Everyman magic wasn’t so particular after all. Did the life-force of the Hope Street ley line really power its pantomime heart?
The answer, however, is here. Now it’s back in the Everyman’s tight thrust arena and the venue’s new physical flexibility allows two extra rows of seats which in turn have compacted the stage to the benefit of this show. It doesn’t just send you home with a spring in your step, it turns your smile into a lunatic acid house grin before propelling you out the door with a thump from its Airwair soul.
To achieve this, co-writers Sarah A Nixon and Mark Chatterton dispense with some of the time-honoured panto rules. So yes, there’s no “oh yes it is”. And as for “he’s behind you!”, well, they leave that behind. Instead you get a marmalised fairy tale – in this case, Little Red Riding Hood cut-and-shut with The Snow Queen, then reversed at speed through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – together with lots of technical flash, bang and wallop. This show is in your face – then up the aisle and round your back – while you’re still trying to work out if any of it makes sense or operates according to the laws of this or any other theatrical universe.
And that’s the point about Little Red Riding Hood, or pretty much any Everyman pantomime. It makes its own rules – then breaks them, takes itself to court, gets banged up and escapes again while other pantos are still shouting, “hello boys and girls”. If some of the doubling up and wig-swapping makes your head spin, imagine what it must do to the cast. But with Adam Keast and Francis Tucker whipping up a comic tornado as Woody Woodcutter and Betty Berry, and Zita Frith and Jonny Bower adding the wind-chill that brings boos unbidden to your lips, and the rest of the ensemble keeping the vortex spinning with star turns as actors, singers and musicians, this show is a seasonal fixture that has finally blown back to its rightful home.
But if anyone says they saw me clapping to Showaddywaddy, I’ll sue.
Images by Brian Roberts
Where: Everyman Theatre, Liverpool
When: until January 17, 2015