ONCE upon a time … pantomime had a pretty straightforward formula – wicked fairy/demon (enter/exit stage left), good fairy (enter/exit stage right), principal boy hero, principal girl (usually our hero’s social superior), evil baron/squire, murderous step-mother, knockabout comics (usually sidekicks to the villain) and plenty of village people (no connection to well-known gay singing group).
It’s all changed in the past few years, with many new panto stories, usually adapted either from successful stage or (increasingly) film musicals or favourite books – Beauty and the Beast, The Three Musketeers, Alice in Wonderland, etc.
All credit to Sturminster Newton Amateur Dramatic Society who cleverly mixed tradition and innovation with their 2017 choice of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Their version, by Ben Crocker, takes the Arabian Nights tale of good but poor Ali Baba (Ann Neville) and his rich brother Cassim (Richard Skinner), who is married to greedy Sharon (Kirstie Price), and spices it up.
To begin with, literally, there is a framing device of the great storyteller Scheherazade (Helen Peat), with the imaginative device of a Punch and Judy style mini-theatre to introduce the characters and tell some of the story.
The sub-plots and additional characters include a clever camel, Kamil, (excellently piloted by Ann Baseden and Pamela Snell), a younger sister, Huma (Hope Corfield) for Ali’s sweetheart, the slave Safiya (Teegan Pearce), Jillian Goldbart, Ann Basesden and Vanessa Dawson in astonishing wigs as three singing gossips of Mum Baba (the great Ian Greig in yet another scene-stealing seductive Dame role), and a blindfolded tailor, Fab Rick (a deliciously camp performance from Matt Rawson).
Where I have a bit of a wobble with this version is its grand guignol gore – not only does the evil chief thief (Bill Peat), Sheikh Mustafa Leikh (read it aloud) wear black and keep beheading people (off-stage, to be fair), he also has his numbskull henchmen Yessah and Nossah (Paula Skinner and Jessica Mash) cut Cassim into pieces when they catch him in the treasure cave and pin the pieces outside as a grim warning.
The tailor has a magical skill so you can guess what happens, and if you saw Bristol Old Vic’s totally brilliant 2016 musical The Grinning Man you may recognise the gothic undertones here.
Maybe it’s just me, but the all-in-black, scimitar-wielding, turbanned villain and the many beheadings seem to be topical in an un-pantomime way. I’m all for up-to-the-minute jokes – goodness knows we need something to laugh about in these troubled days – but this felt uncomfortable at times.
Putting these reservations aside, the SNADS cast rise well to the challenge of a clever script and there are some outstanding performances, particularly from Kirstie Price who makes nasty grasping Sharon’s transition to happy dancing Sharon delightful and believable, and Richard Skinner whose Cassim discovers a whole new meaning to getting your life back.
A disappointingly small audience on the night I saw Ali Baba made it hard work for the company but some of us did our best with the Oh No He Didn’ts, Behind Yous and the audience song. With a bigger and more responsive crowd, the pace of the comedy routines will surely pick up.
A very welcome new recruit to the SNADS team is Geoffrey Horton, a professional musician and singer whose skill as musical director enabled the band to make the most of the not always easy original music by Sarah Travis. Geoffrey’s splendid singing voice was also a welcome addition to the audience song!
Congratulations to chairman and first-time director Trevor Puckett and his co-director/producer John Skinner for staging an imaginative, colourful and exciting show that really is a bit different.