SO, we all loved the penguins. As John Ruskin said: “One can’t be angry when one looks at a Penguin” – which is another way of saying that penguins make us smile.
Hang on – this is The Nutcracker. Christmas tree, tick; magician, tick; toy soldiers, tick; wooden nutcracker, tick; rats, tick; sugar plum fairy, tick. But penguins?
Shaftesbury Arts Centre’s imaginative and experienced director Myra McDadd has adapted the much-loved and very familiar story as a pantomime, so there is a Dame (Nanny Dumpling – Tim Trenchard), a strange white monster for plenty of Behind yous! (Cliff Skey) … and the penguins.
Frankly, they stole the show. The chorus of black and white, shuffling, twittering birds with their brightly coloured feet, moving as one, quoting David Attenborough and panicking at the thought of the truly evil Seven-Headed Rat Queen (of whom more anon) is a dotty and delightful addition to a show that has it all.
It all begins as you expect – Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music, dancing and excited children Clara (Beth Gray) and Freddie (Max McCall) awaiting the arrival of their godfather, the mysterious magician Dr Drosselmeyer (Peter Morris), who gives Clara a nutcracker (Charles Dillon). There is even a Christmas tree that grows bigger before our eyes, like the tree in the famous Royal Ballet production.
The squeaking, vicious rats bring monochrome threat to the brightly coloured sitting room and before long the happy children, with their human-sized toys are in a life and death struggle to escape the claws of the Seven-Headed Rat Queen (Susan Grant). With a halo head-dress of rat skulls and a signature tune (Bizet’s Habanera) which speaks of reckless, arrogant confidence, this is a glamorous pantomime villain to cherish!
Add in a butler with a weakness for Nanny Dumpling and a weak head for vodka (Alex Chase), carol-singers, the most wonderful disreputable old teddy bear (Pippa Bealing) and an audience participation song that really gets the youngsters singing and clapping – and you have a terrific and original take on Hoffman’s original fairytale.
Myra McDadd has a few other surprises up her sleeve, all adding up to an unusual and entertaining new pantomime. It continues at the Bell Street arts centre until Saturday 2nd February.