YEOVIL’S Octagon Theatre, built as the multi-purpose Johnson Hall in 1974, will close in April for a major refurbishment that will cement its position as the largest performing arts venue in Somerset – and it’s doing it with a huge, hilarious and glorious Christmas show.
The annual pantomime is always a highlight of the year, and since Paul Hendy and Emily Wood from Evolution took over the productions, they have just got better and better. This year, Paul’s version of Dick Whittington is a triumph of invention, performed by the regular team of Gordon Cooper and Jack Glanville, with returning Thom Bradford and Kathryn Nash, and newcomers Daniel Parkinson, Javana Forrest and James Bamford.
You can go to pantomimes all around the country and see television star performers who will reel out their catch phrases and be divinely glamorous. But it’s not a piece blown off the magical chemistry that sometimes occurs between the actors who work together each Christmas to create something that’s freshly funny, delights all ages and pushes performers to new heights of comedy timing and adlibbing.
You won’t see a better Dame and Silly son pair than Gordon and Jack – though the latter is three years older than his annual “mum”. Over the seasons they have developed a Yeovil Cart of Puns sketch that deserves a place in the roll of great pantomime routines, and this year is no exception. They also do Chris Harris’s ever-popular “bench” scene, this time exchanging the familiar “go-sss” (as the children shout) for a larger and more fleshed-out scary thing.
There are also some excellent projections, utilising the technological gizmos that the company will have to use in the wide open spaces of Westlands, while the Octagon is closed. It’s an appetising prospect.
One of the most improved elements of recent pantomimes has been the excellence of the traditional “villagers” – here also sailors and rats. The eight young dancers, acrobats and singers add huge dollops of energy and skill to the proceedings and underline the value of the musical theatre studies courses now on offer.
I’m a devotee of a female principal boy (we won’t go into that here) but Daniel Parkinson’s Mr Whittington could convert me. He is a terrific singer, a handsome and convincing hero, and a comic whose wit and speed allows him to work with Dame Dolly and Billy in the most hysterical “messy” routine I have ever seen. It is just achingly funny, and the obvious potential for slipping makes it all the more so.
Thom Bradford (who used to be known as Thom Ford and comes originally from Crewkerne) returns from his new home in America for his fifth Christmas outing, as a King Rat with delusions of thespian grandeur, a wicked grin and eyebrows to yearn for – a seriously hissable and booable villain in the obligatory black leather.
His American wife Kathryn Nash has fully absorbed the English tradition of pantomime and knows just how to play Fairy Bowbells to full effect. Javana Forrest is a spirited Alice Fitzwarren, and without her father the Alderman it gives her extra opportunity to use her great singing voice. We’d all like a cat who leaps and dances and fights rodents as well as James Bamford’s Caroline (aka Tommy).
You can even glimpse a couple of moments from Les Mis and Guys and Dolls, in among the songs. And if it’s a singalong you’re after, get ready for some physical jerks, as we used to call them. Even those whose attention was turning to Dubai during Saturday’s show were entranced by this terrific, triumphant show.
Photographs by Len Copland