It’s panto season, and there’s good old-fashioned family fun to be had at the Oxford Playhouse with this year’s production, Beauty and the Beast. Good panto can take many forms, from the lavish, expensive and finely crafted to those rickety homespun affairs which, like the Christmas decorations your children make at school, you’re happy to see year after year because even the ones made of dead leaves and reclaimed bottle tops have been glued together with intense effort and pride. Beauty and the Beast is most emphatically not made of dead leaves and bottle tops, but happily, while it revels in flashing lights, music, dancing, and a pleasingly unnecessary number of costume changes, the show doesn’t neglect the grittier but no-less essential elements of the pantomime tradition, such as audience sing-along and terrible puns.
The production is spirited and sparkling, and there is absolutely no silliness spared. Roseanna Frascona as Belle is fun and courageous, but she and Matthew Staite’s Beast don’t really have a huge amount of stage-time together, and the show is capably stolen by the loathsome but redeemable villains and the goodies’ anthropomorphized animal sidekick (this year, inexplicably, an orangutan called Brian). Dev Joshi as Witch Kardashia shines with laid-back ill will and a fine singing voice, Gardener Paul Biggin and Fox/Mayor (I know, I know…) Adrianna Bertola provide much entertainment in the form of singing, dancing and slapstick - and credit is due as always to the young company, who rock the ensemble scenes variously as villagers, enchanted animals and cutlery.
It feels – in a good way – like the organisers have got together sometime in the summer to raid the panto box and said ‘look, we’ve got an orangutan costume, all these off-cuts from 80s pop songs, a set of gospel choir robes, 15 jokes about popular culture which will ONLY be funny this year, and a bizarre song about what the fox says – how can we weave them all together without wasting anything?’ Amid all this, the plot does feel somewhat incidental, which is a little bit of a shame, as I think there’s room for a stronger story alongside the silliness and the surreal, but the company did make sure to push home a strong message of reconciliation in conclusion. Certainly the children seemed happy, and the grown-ups were getting on board too.
I love panto, and so should you. While it might not (always) be high-brow, it’s a genre with rules as particular as classical tragedy or golden-age detective fiction, and this production of Beauty and the Beast strikes a good balance between following and flouting tradition. Singing, dancing, and shouting at the stage for all!