Review by Nigel Smith
ST HELENS Theatre Royal is a much-loved jewel and a venue that really cares about its local community.
Its pantos, which usually appear several times each year, are hugely popular and very much family-oriented shows. Producer/managers Jane Joseph and Chantelle Nolan were determined that St Helens would get its panto for Christmas, whatever obstacles they had to deal with.
In order to achieve a socially distanced performance onstage, minimising the risk of last minute cancellation, they shelved their planned Cinderella, which requires one of the biggest casts of the panto repertoire. Replacing it is Beauty and the Beast, a show that can be fully staged with a smaller scale cast but without compromises. Even so, with 16 performers on one stage it must be one of the biggest live Christmas shows Merseyside is likely to see this year.
The script for this version is by the company’s regular writer Liam Mellor, and as usual he has taken the familiar story (which is not a traditional panto) and shaken it up. Think of it as doing a jigsaw puzzle that’s had half the pieces swapped with those from several completely different pictures. The narrative is definitely recognisable and has most of its features intact, but it’s been tweaked, pruned and added to so as to squeeze in the necessary gags.
Belle’s father is nowhere to be seen in this version, and as this story commences she is already determined to win the heart of the handsome prince. Olivia Sloyan’s portrayal of the part brings it a suitably regal quality from the outset, and there is little doubt that there will be a wedding before the final curtain.
Andrew Geater plays the object of Belle’s affections, and makes his entrance in Dandini-esque garb before engaging the wrath of the evil Madame Botox (Abigail Middleton in a wig straight out of Bride of Frankenstein). Summarily Geater’s prince is transformed into the beast, and it is left to Jenna Sian O’Hara’s Fairy Rose to find a way to reverse the spell and get those wedding belles (sorry) ringing.
Along the way there is much high jinks to be had, courtesy of Potty Polly, a traditional Dame played with characteristic skill by Jamie Greer, and Scott Gallagher’s French Frank, a court servant appointed as covid safety officer.
This is an excellent cast, but bobbing along on the crest of its waves is Tim Lucas as Gaston, the outrageously conceited jester of the piece who is determined to turn Belle’s head throughout the story. If there is one person Gaston loves more than Belle it’s himself, and Lucas plays this brilliantly in a turbo-charged and completely over the top performance that would have the audience rolling in the aisles had we been permitted to move from our allotted, distanced seats. Lucas, like the rest of the cast, has appeared in previous Regal Entertainments shows, and Theatre Royal audiences will not have forgotten his PC Noodle from Aladdin or his Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. He is in his element here, and his Gaston could easily have completely stolen the show but for his generosity and the overall strength of the cast.
The script and the action are simply littered with references to covid, and this could have become wearing after the year we’ve had, if it weren’t for the fact that this appears to be a great way of turning the measures we need to keep safe into a fun game for the children. The writing unashamedly incorporates this as the show’s key moral message, and does it with extremely good humour. The funniest manifestations of this had to be the reworked song lyrics, especially in a version of “Baby there’s covid outside” and in what must be the funniest and best rendition of “The Twelve days of Christmas” ever to appear on this stage.
The show has no junior dance troupe this year, for obvious reasons, but its nine senior dancers, all masked throughout but not seeming breathless at all, brought great movement and colour to the stage. They especially shone in a very nicely choreographed haunted forest sequence.
Musical numbers were all excellently voiced by the main cast, and it appeared that much of the sung work was lip-synced, presumably to comply with safety requirements.
The show is shorter than usual, with each act running at about 45 minutes, but nonetheless it’s a value packed evening that certainly doesn’t leave anyone short-changed. It does mean that it alleviates the logistical challenge of getting the audience in and out of their safely distanced seating, allowing for a substantial interval to avoid toilet queues and to enable everyone to have their app-ordered drinks and snacks delivered to their seats.
This is a show that takes the challenges of covid and turns them into a feature, making for an evening that starts with everyone feeling safe and ends with a sea of very happy faces. Kudos to the Theatre Royal, to Regal Entertainments and especially to Jane Joseph and Chantelle Nolan, for putting live theatre back on stage in St Helens this Christmas.
Images by David Munn