Despite its absence from the list of standard pantomime material, the Greco-Roman legend of Hercules and his fabled strength fits very comfortably in the genre as Wellington Pantomime Group’s annual show, which ends its run at The Wellesley this week, reveals.
The script by Joshua and Lewis Clarke makes use of some classical references but fits around them all the expected elements of pantomime – daft and corny gags, big characters, silliness, a bit of slapstick and a lot of lighthearted fun (and participation) for audiences which span the entire age range, from the most senior of citizens to the youngest. This is some accomplishment – and one which the team presenting the show clearly relishes.
Director/Choreographer Ashleigh Payne has taken on a big production in this show but his youthful vigour and experience as a performer have a marked impact on its pace. Twelve scenes in two acts are delivered briskly and the changing tempo from dialogue to musical numbers to dance routines is fluent. The set helps – and the stage design and construction team deserve much credit for giving the audience a sense of earthly Greece as well as Hades’ underworld and the Muses’ heaven whilst allowing a big cast the space to perform. His choreographed routines are especially smooth and well-managed and showcase the sharp skills of his dance troupe.
Musical Director Chris Grabham is equally youthful and his dynamic leadership of his musicians is striking. With seventeen musical numbers to deliver, his skill and energy are crucial and, whilst the big band sound sometimes overwhelms dialogue, his management of the cast’s vocal numbers is impressive. He is fortunate to have actors with gorgeous voices who can follow his lead – but his skilful, adroit shaping of vocal numbers suggests he will be called on for future productions.
Michael Cole’s presentation of Hercules suggests an unlikely hero, surprised by his sudden elevation to god-level and naively good-hearted in his various endeavours. Younger members of the audience will surely have recognised his cartoonish superhero manner even if they are unfamiliar with the legend. His superb voice fits perfectly with Hannah Deason-Barrow’s as his love-interest, Meg. She is a beautiful, serene performer with a distinct stage-presence and is little short of perfect in this role. Her delivery of ‘Lost in Your Eyes’ should have brought the audience to its feet if time had allowed.
As the traditional pantomime dame, Ma Salata, Ian Jones tries out an accent which is more Grimsby than Grecian but allows him to engage comfortably the audience. Wearing ridiculous frocks and a fright wig presents few problems for Ian who is an able, experienced performer with a good sense of comic timing but releasing his inner Les Dawson might have given him a little more scope. As his son, Zak Siki, Charlie Hughes finds a delightfully fitting body-language to convey the character’s gormlessness.
Jack Glanville gives an uninhibited display of maliciousness as Hades, complete with fruity cackle and a sooty face that hints at difficulties with keeping the underworld’s fires alight. His magnificent voice and physical confidence allow him abundant flexibility as a performer but his diction and cadences, whilst much improved on last year’s Puss, perhaps still need work. His sidekicks – Lethal and Bizzle played by Alice Luke and Steph Coleman – almost steal the show. Steph’s Bizzle is pure Miranda Hart, with striking physical mannerisms and comic timing.
The three Muses – a delightful evocation of Destiny’s Child by Christina Matravers, Lizzie Harvey and Bonnie Bow-Thompson – waft around in flowing white and might not be surprised by being signed up as a girl band themselves, such was the strength of their collective voices.
Whilst the lead performers and a number of the ensemble players and dancers are familiar to those who follow Wellington Operatic Society and the Pantomime Group’s shows, there were also some younger performers involved in this show. The role of Daisy the Cat was shared between Martha Askew and Daisy Holloway on successive nights and whichever of them played the part during the Saturday matinee deserves a very special mention for the quality of her performance. The Junior Company too – eight youngsters involved in a production that they’ll probably remember throughout their lives – illustrated the value of theatre training provided by shows such as this.
Performers are the visible elements of these productions but without the commitment and skills of a considerable backstage team – costume, lighting, sound, stage-management – these shows would not be possible and all of the crew deserve an ovation for their input which, once again, reaches the highest standards. The team even conjure a monstrous dragon with eyes that change from red to green far more efficiently than Wellington’s traffic lights for Hercules to slay.
The final judgement of any pantomime comes from an assessment of its ability to delight. ‘Hercules: the Pantomime’ delighted. It showcased a wide range of performance skills, it provided non-demanding and wholeheartedly joyful, timeless entertainment, it gently ridiculed current and popular culture and, in an age dominated by technology, provided a welcome opportunity for everyone of every age to share live performance. Well done Wellington Pantomime Group.