OPENING NIGHT: The uncertainty over the immediate future of the Fairfield Halls saw DIANA ECCLESTON receiving mixed messages about the 2016 Croydon panto during the course of the opening night of the 2015 show
I’ve been going to pantomimes at the Ashcroft Theatre pretty much since the Fairfield Halls were opening by the Queen Mother in 1962.
It was very exciting for a kid back then: a spanking new place to see shows, and even though I thought the pantos were dire, the memory of them remains with me. They starred Cyril Fletcher with scripts by his wife Betty Astell and random variety acts totally unconnected with the storyline would suddenly appear to do their thing. It developed in me a love of live theatre and of the pantomime tradition in particular.
And I mean tradition. I can’t get enough of the old routines and the corny gags. And the slosh scenes. I love a bit of slapstick, though it is dying out as the young stars from TV don’t seem to know how to do it nor want to do it.
I’m happy to say that even though this year’s offering, Cinderella, starring Stephen Mulhern as Buttons, isn’t in my hall of fame as one of the best ever, it does feature several traditional mainstays of the panto, including a pair of gruesome Ugly Sisters:
“I can’t get my foot in the crystal slipper!”
“You couldn’t get your foot in the Crystal Palace!”
There are several nods to modernism, including the flying horse which takes Cinders’ coach to the ball, instead of the usual pair of real ponies – on reflection it is kinder not to have the poor little things living in a horse box in the car park for several weeks just to be dragged on stage twice a day for a few minutes for our gratification.
The rather different transformation scene magicked up by the Fairy Godmother works beautifully. I’ve seen some star-spangled Fairy Godmothers here over the years, Chipstead’s June Brown from 1991 being one of the best, and poor old fellow EastEnder Laila Morse being less successful, as she had trouble remembering her lines.
EastEnders has provided the Ashcroft with plenty of panto headliners, and there have also been Darren Day, who had the misfortune to appear alongside Mr Blobby who completely stole his thunder. One of the best Ashcroft pantos was one I took my then toddler daughter to. It starred Patrick Mower as a Sheriff of Nottingham and Roy Hudd, a proper pantomaster, as a robber who took part in a hilarious slapstick sequence. My daughter wouldn’t stop booing Mower or laughing at Hudd.
As the Fairfield Halls’ chief executive Simon Thomsett says in the pantomime programme: “Panto is an amazing thing. For most children it is their first experience of live theatre, the first time they see and experience live acting, singing and dancing.”
So it’s sad that a big fat question mark now hangs over the future of Croydon’s entertainment venue. There is much talk about a huge revamp and possible closure of the building for around two years. But staff don’t know anything for certain.
Shows are being booked in, and during Cinderella there was a mention that next year’s offering will be Aladdin. Let’s hope so. To close Fairfield completely for any length of time would be complete folly, meaning the loss of jobs and audiences, because people will get into the habit of not going.
Cinderella runs to January 3 with two performances most days.
Now, to leave you with a silly Cinderella joke I’ve nicked from the programme: Why did Cinderella get kicked off the football team? Because she kept running away from the ball. Boom boom!
- Diana Eccleston, pictured right, is a Croydon resident and an experienced arts and theatre reviewer for local newspapers
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