From 42nd Street to A Chorus of Disapproval, the concept of a play about a play (or musical) and the lives of the players behind the scenes has always been found an audience. As far as I’m aware, Look Behind You, first staged in 1995 by Strut and Fret, an offshoot of the Kensington Theatre Company, is the only such play about a traditional pantomime and for the playwright Daniel Wain it has proved a rich seam to mine. In 1999 Look Behind You was staged at Chiswick’s Tabard Theatre and it is to the Tabard that the play has returned, with an updated if not virtually new script.
The cast of Dick Whittington, the play within a play, is what one critic of the original succinctly described as “a motley crew of young hopefuls and old lags”: an exceptionally foul-mouthed Jordan-esque (then model not the country) alcoholic; a soap star who’s seen better days, slumming it; a boy band singer; a weather girl; an ancient comedian; a chorine with an eye for an opportunity; and the worst thing one can encounter in any show – an actor, who knows just about everything about the theatre. Add an acerbic stage manager and a member of the cast who is only there because of the sponsorship she brings, and you have the basis for plenty of backstage skulduggery and entangled relationships. The only thing missing is a director, but he/she comes in the form of Sam, the theatre manager and producer of Dick Whittington.
Look Behind You is openly inspired by Michael Frayn’s glorious farce Noises Off, and while that play is somewhat of its time, Wain has updated his original script in part by subtly heightening the national political context – the questionable competence of current politicians, the many threats to Theatre, and so on although the criticism of modern audiences seems a little mistimed. The result is a richly stuffed plum pudding of a show – perhaps a little too stuffed with a few too many short scenes to cover, a few too many costume changes, and in the second half, a few too many revelations and reminiscences about the good old days of the Blitz and arts subsidy.
As Sam/Sarah, Wain is superb, one of the best pantomime dames you will see. Annabel Miller plays Maggie, the SM, more or less keeping the show on the road and the cast in the right places at the right time. Olivia Jackson is an adorable Wendy/Tommy the Cat, countered by Mia Skytte, regally chewing the scenery as the wicked Queen Rat/Norma and getting one of the biggest laughs of the evening with a single word (‘cutlery’) while the freighted celebs are played by a hilarious Matt Tester (Finn/Dick) and Anna Piggott (Jesse/Alice Fitzwarren), properly stressed as a theatrical debutant while fending off the lascivious Nicholas/Idle Jack, played by Oliver Redpath – an actor I have only ever seen playing actors but capable, one suspects, of much more. Another veteran member of Strut and Fret, Cait Hart Dyke (Camille/Fairy Bowbells) who adds a tangerine and blue tinge with Ellie Armstrong as the aptly named and suitably perky Sue Brette while the cast is rounded off by Stephen Pratt who plays Robin who plays Alderman Fitzwarren, the role that no one ever wants to play, and Caroline Ross (Bernie/Captain Barnacle) who grows in her role as a vicious ventriloquist.
Everything about pantomimes is always comfortingly familiar and while Look Behind You gives some ancient chestnuts an airing, even quoting Oscar Wilde, the script is peppered with one-liners, some original and some re-purposed. With simple but highly effective staging that morphs between the wings and the stage of the “Britannia Theatre” and stunning pantomime sets by Rich Evans, Look Behind You pays the expected dividends and is just the thing for an adult audience on a cold night in January. Playing at the Tabard Theatre until 3 February.
Review by Louis Mazzini
Five-star favourites Strut & Fret return to the Tabard with a freshly minted, marvellously modern revival of their sell-out hit Look Behind You. Welcome to the cross-dressing, thigh-slapping, wise-cracking world of pantomime, where monkeys talk, dreams come true and people are hit but never hurt.
Now look behind the scenes… at the bad-mouthing, two-timing, pill-popping pressure cooker that is backstage reality. The perfect bitter-sweet antidote to the seasonal slush!
Christmas. New Year. A time for peace, goodwill and happy-ever-after? Oh, no, it isn’t! Not for the mixed bag of mixed-up has-beens, wannabes and never-will-bes trapped in the last-chance theatre of a godforsaken seaside town, performing Dick Whittington, somewhere far, far away from the paved gold of old London Town…
Look Behind You by Daniel Wain
17th January – 3rd February 2024