by Alan P Frayn

Friends of the Art Theatre


It must be very comforting and, indeed, gratifying for any committee of a dramatic arts group to know that they have sell out performances prior to the show. Over recent years there seems to have been a renaissance for the pantomime genre, and the societies I have had the privilege to visit seem to bear this out.


This year’s pantomime from the Friends of the Art Theatre was Hansel and Gretel. While this would not be classed as one of the most popular or well-known pantomimes, such as Cinderella, Dick Whittington or Jack and the Beanstalk, it still had all the chemistry of what makes a good pantomime. There were good and bad characters, silly characters, slap stick, innuendo, catch phrases to shout out, and time to engage with the audience. There is always the edge in pantomime that something will go wrong or fluffed lines, at times it did, but that is what makes this genre fun, and the audiences love it.


The first thing that struck me was the amazing make up that the cast had. Designed by Brian Berriman, Pauline Rowe and Natalie Coverley, the effect was striking, especially that of Bluebell (Becky Towner-Yates) and Nightshade (Angela Hulme).


The whole production was super. The set designed by Terry Barber and Keith Clayton transferred from village, to woods, circus and cottage quite seamlessly. I suspect that someone has a knowledge of musical theatre on the production team, and thus we were transferred to the circus big top efficiently using a few pieces of red material. This was very effective and brought the end of act one to a colourful and pleasing conclusion. Again, the technique was used in the finale leaving us all happy and looking forward to next year.


Sound by Nick Lowe and lighting by Dan Thompson totally supported those on stage. The wardrobe team coordinated by Philippa Peatfield, Jenny Howe and Hazel Bowker provided the audience with a colourful feast. While some of these were hired, I suspect that some had to be made for this large ensemble and matched perfectly. For some reason I did expect Wally to be in a stripped jumper rather than lederhosen, but it certainly didn’t detract from the performance.


There had obviously been a lot of thought by the actors into the personas of their characters. Becky Towner-Yates was excellent as the narrator Fairy Bluebell. She was quirky in her movements and at times quite hypnotising as she carefully, clearly and thoughtfully told the audience the story in rhyme. She was quite deliberate in her delivery so that everything could be heard. She looked quite captivating in the well-designed costume and makeup. The same can be said for Angela Hulme in the role of the evil Nightshade who uses children’s bones in her gingerbread. Her presence on stage was excellent and we all knew who to boo. Her cackle was excellent.


Another super performance was given by Stewart Bowden, as the silly Wally. He really did make the most of this part, full of energy and a twinkle in the eye. He delivered his catchphrases with confidence and really engaged the audience encouraging them to join in as much as he could. So did Melissa Steele, as his sister, Heather, who becomes the love interest for the Prince Johann. I really did like Grant Quigley’s take on this character. It came over as very narcissistic by constantly preening and looking at himself in a mirror. This was something different in this character’s portrayal that I haven’t seen before and so was refreshing.


Every pantomime has a dame character. After a year away, playing a baddy, Darren Cooper returned and donned the frocks and wigs once again to give an outrageous performance as Peggy Pumpernickel. He really knows what the audience is looking for: energy, a squeaky voice, great timing and not too shy to engage the audience, especially the men. The Dame’s catch phrase this year was one that made you smile, a reference to one of two knockers – door ones that is! The slapstick kitchen scene with Stewart, Sam Bolton and Lisa Quin was very funny and excellently timed.


It always amazes me how confident some youth actors are. Jake Hornsey stepped this year into the title role of Hansel and Samantha Provart was his sister, Gretel. Both totally commanded and filled the stage with their personalities and acted their socks off. As young performers it is always good to watch others a little, shall we say, more seasoned actors. I refer to Peter Bowler who was mesmerising as Klaus, the circus master who led the way in Barnum style.


The beauty of pantomime is that there is always something of a surprise lurking. I am always impressed when a character really makes something out of their time on stage and more so if that person is from the youth section. In this case, step forward Ross Provart. I believe Ross is relatively new to stage work but my goodness did he make an impact. Who knew that being a soldier blowing a horn could deliver comedy gold? I was especially impressed by his comic timing, expressions and understanding of how to engage and encourage audience participation from one so young. Now that is how to steal a scene on stage. Well done!


The production team of Rob Brittles must be happy with the end product as it gave so much enjoyment to us all. As I have come to expect, the choreography by Cathryn Yates was creative and energetic and all the dance routines were well spaced and rehearsed. So too, this year, were the musical numbers under the guidance of Zoey Vickers and Adam Hutchins.


We participate in amateur theatre for the enjoyment and this radiated out from the stage by all. Congratulations to everyone who has contributed making this pantomime a super afternoon’s entertainment.