For about six weeks in the year, the word pantomime is pretty much on everybody’s lips at some point. Normally staid and sensible papers like the Telegraph and Guardian run specials on which regional theatres have the best pantomimes on. This year there has even been a TikTok influencer who has gone viral with videos covering the ‘big name’ casting in various pantos around the country. It no wonder Pantomime is so big. For theatregoers, it is a major event that can entertain an entire family and for theatre owners, it is a guaranteed banker that can keep the theatre afloat for the next year. But what is it like to be in a pantomime? Anything up to three shows a day for six weeks with only Christmas Day itself off? We get a chance to go behind the stage with the Jack Studio Theatre’s Christmas offering Oh No It Isn’t!
Backstage in a regional theatre somewhere and it’s panto season. Cinderella’s two ugly sisters – Mr Chancery (Bryan Pilkington) and Mr Worth (Matthew Parker) – are reluctantly sharing a dressing room. They are old sparring partners who have worked together on and off for years and tonight is the last performance of Cinderella, their last night of working together and sharing the dressing room. After six weeks or so of being together both on and off stage, there is tension in the air and the two performers cannot help but be bitchy and throw shade at each other as they wait for their cues to go on for the next scene. Out in the audience, you probably would not notice anything was amiss as we watched the sisters perform. And yet, there is something in the air and there are odd moments where the performance does not feel quite right. As the show comes to an end, things are said that cannot be unsaid and the two actors wonder what the future holds.
I am honestly not sure what I was expecting from Oh No It Isn’t! I suppose in my mind, I was expecting a sort of ‘Noises Off’ type story based around a Christmas show with lots of laughs along the way. And in some ways, that is what Luke Adamson’s writing gives you. But it is so much more. We get to see both characters as themselves and as one of the sisters as the production takes us from observing their dressing room to being part of the pantomime audience, so we become part of the show, joining in with the panto elements. The story is really gripping from the start. Aside from wanting to know what happened during “Babes in the Wood”, you cannot help but be drawn into the lives of these beautifully drawn characters who have managed to be in this place working together despite the vastly different routes they took to get here.
Before turning to the actors, let us have a look at the other elements of the show. Karl Swinyard’s set instantly brings to mind a run-down regional theatre dressing room, complete with the detritus of old productions and the lack of space that the non-principal actors are given, helping to push the claustrophobic atmosphere that Chancery and Worth inhabit seven days a week. I loved that the dressing room was transformed into the main stage by the simple action of moving a rail and changing the lighting (Robbie Butler’s lighting design is first rate). I should also mention Martin J Robinson’s costumes which were regional budget panto at their absolute finest.
Let us summarise then. We have an excellent story and script and a wonderfully realistic set and costumes. How about the actors? Bryan Pilkington and Matthew Parker really excelled in their roles of Mr Chancery & Mr Worth, respectively. Off-stage a couple of bickering old queens that had spent far too long together, but onstage a formidable double act who worked hard to entertain the kids despite any loss of their own dignity. Favourite moment of the two onstage was their rendition of ‘Sisters’ which, with choreography by Tessa Guerrero, really put me in mind of the Danny Kay/Bing Crosby rendition of the same song in ‘White Christmas.’ These two really gave their all to the production and it showed. They had such different attitudes to the work they did and its importance that you have to wonder what, if anything, they had in common. In fact, on the surface the animosity between characters was easy to see, but it really was just surface deep and there was obviously a lot of affection between them – though they would probably never admit it to themselves or others – which came out at times all the way through. Superb performances from both actors.
Director Kate Bannister has taken all the elements above and wove them into a fabulous show that had me laughing, sighing and at the very end, sharing a little tear at the poignancy of the final scene.
Oh No It Isn’t! isn’t a traditional Christmas show by any means, but it is a wonderful example of how you can mix different theatrical styles in this case, rip-roaring panto with comedy and hard-hitting drama, and produce something very special indeed.
Review by Terry Eastham
So let’s build the tension – everybody put your hands on your legs and give us a drum roll please! Stamp your feet! Here we go!’
They’re the best of sisters onstage but the worst of friends off it. It’s the final performance of a Cinderella panto in a moth-eaten, regional theatre and backstage tensions threaten to boil over onstage.
Will the egotism, one-up-manship and sexual politics remain confined to the dressing room? Will the ugly sisters keep the professional professional and the personal personal? Will we ever find out what happened during Babes In The Wood?
Oh No It Isn’t!
by Luke Adamson
directed by Kate Bannister
presented by The Jack Studio Theatre