‘A Christmas Carol’ is not the most obvious vehicle for light-hearted entertainment. Its main character, Scrooge, is a miserly misanthropist who, as a greedy, loveless businessman with a stony heart, represents all the social injustices of 19th century London which Dickens felt most keenly, having suffered many of them as a boy.
But this unlikely tale has been transformed into a richly entertaining script by Wellington Pantomime Group’s own Andrew Winfield. In ‘Scrooge: The Pantomime’ he has handed them a vehicle which combines all the timelessly successful elements of pantomime and, as their 40th production, one which showcases all that is enduring about the genre.
Essentially, it’s very funny, with lots of witty dialogue, topical humour, jokes, puns, a bit of slapstick and enough references to Dickens – not just ‘A Christmas Carol’ – for him to be acknowledged as well as mined for material. Tiny Tim becoming an effective running gag is a masterstroke. There are a host of characters who fit the expected pantomime stereotypes – good, bad, daft, noble, gender-bending – and opportunities for a large supporting cast to sing, dance, act, react, over-act and generally entertain their family audience. It is supposedly set in ‘London’ but, even if Buy and Save has recently moved to Bayswater, the numerous references to recognizable local features – Tim Potter’s, Tiverton Parkway, the Basins – place it comfortably close to home.
Leading the cast is the delightful Dame. Big, buxom, cross-dressed Dottie Dilber allows Paul Smith as much dramatic license as he can handle – and more. His role is to set the scene and style, to get the audience involved, be extravagantly expansive, flamboyant and good-hearted, to deliver double entendres and get laughs from the front row to the back of the balcony, all of which he does in a manner which great dames of the stage and screen – Emery, Dawson, Everidge included – would applaud. He even has the necessary wayward eyebrows.
Dottie’s son, Jonny, is the show’s clown. Richard Matravers is a rising star of Wellington Arts Society. Here is a young actor who can sing very well, dance well too (his tap routine is impressive) and who is growing more stage-assured show by show. Jonny must encourage the audience to cheer him on in his genial buffoonery with their reprise of “You’ve got the sprouts!”, an unlikely but effectively ridiculous catchphrase. He also manages to convey all the goofy idiocy of the role without self-consciousness or conceit.
As Ebeneezer Scrooge Kirk Shepherd appears a little less comfortable – admittedly only on the evidence of the dress rehearsal. He looks right, adopts a sullen scowl and stomps around, hands glued to lapels, delivering “Bah”s and “Humbug”s on cue but, in terms of pantomime nastiness, there’s more to exploit, especially physically. As a transformed character (post-ghosts), though, he seems much more at ease.
The ‘Principal Boy’ role of Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is played with thigh-slapping hearty exuberance by Anthony James. Fred is the show’s romantic lead, a role requiring him to look good, woo his girl in traditional fashion and deliver one of the show’s best lines – “Better be going now. My bird needs stuffing and I am the man for the job!” All of which he does confidently. Gladys, his girlfriend, is effectively played by Lizzie Harvey who manages to get the most out of dialogue almost entirely restricted to “I’m glad”.
The script delivers the ghost of Jacob Marley as you’ve never imagined him – as gaily camp. Eden Jack has a gift of a role (and Louie Spence as a role-model) and once he gets his shopping bags, wig, hat, chains and costume under control, he’ll be able to focus on exploiting fully all the grand opportunities the role offers. He is a promising performer making his debut with WPG and is already good to watch.
Bob Cratchit is, in Dickens’ original form, cruelly downtrodden and exploited as Scrooge’s clerk. David Waring is suitably pathetic and pitiable and conveys the right kind of hang-dog meekness. Christina Green, playing the role of his wife, Patsy, gives a delightfully robust performance, bossy, belligerant and funny. In a touch of class, the scriptwriter makes the most of the character of Tiny Tim, having the very small actor missing the show and being replaced by a series of totally hapless (and inappropriate) stand-ins gleaned from the backstage crew. A selection of WPG’s accomplished youngsters are the Cratchit children (all of them delighfully named). The Cratchit’s’ musical number, ‘We Are Family’, is a show-stopper.
From a long cast-list two other roles stand out: Miss Tix and Miss Scaley, played respectively by Dawn Morton and Jennie Liddel, are two earnest charity collectors who go to extremes to attract donations and launch money-raising schemes – including dressing in a series of ridiculous outfits. Gentle satire has a place in panto and it makes for more fun.
The whole cast (including a commendable number of youngsters) back the show’s leads with enthusiasm and the crowd scenes are well-orchestrated both visually and vocally, especially those where the cast react with terror to Scrooge’s appearance. Of the three ghost scenes, the first is the most effective due to a bit of gauze and lighting trickery. The second needs to be tidied up, although there’s a useful fog created in the auditorium that gives a strong sense of Dickensian smog. The audience will judge whether the third is fitting. Does Dickens mention Darth Vadar?
The dance numbers deserve to be acknowledged. Choreographer Charlie Evans may have the whole stage to work with as the settings are mainly projected, but the cast is large, the age range considerable – and there’s the problem of dancing on stray sprouts to manage too. But major dance numbers – and minor ones such as the mice routines – are entertainingly varied. ‘Ghostbusters’ looks terrific as does ‘Thriller’, both entirely appropriate for a show in which anachronisms don’t matter much. The lighting team deserve a special mention for creating some very evocative visual effects.
Conductor Ian Webb-Taylor keeps the music on track, his band punctuating the action neatly and Christina Green’s vocal coaching results in some big, hearty musical numbers, not least the grand finale. The costume department have, as ever, turned out a large cast looking splendid, if not all dressed in the same era – but who cares?
Colin Marshall has juggled a dual role as Director of ‘Scrooge: The Pantomime’ and as Chairman of Wellington Pantomime Group. This 40th anniversary production is going to delight audiences, especially Dickens’ fans who can tap into the script’s derivations and enjoy its deviations. Wellington Pantomime Group should be rightly proud of the entertainment delivered every year to local audiences who can, for an evening, forget that’s it’s winter and just have a laugh.
Well done Wellington Pantomime Group – and well done too to Civic Players for picking up a National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA) District Achievement Award for last year’s production of ‘Single Spies’. The production is also nominated for ‘Best Drama Production’ and ‘Innovation Award’ at this year’s NODA awards’ ceremony in February.
Review & Photos: Gill Paltridge