As the Fairfield Halls approaches a third ‘dark’ Christmas, for the first time in living memory, there is no ‘Croydon Pantomime’ this year. Except, as our intrepid arts correspondent BELLA BARTOCK discovered this week, there are community drama groups keeping the season spirit alive and well
Next week, it will be Cinderella at Ruskin House. Next month, the Sanderstead AmDram group will be taking to the boards with their annual production. And for the past fortnight, it has been Beauty And The Beast that has been wowing the locals down in Coulsdon.
There was surprisingly little space left in the car park when my companion, Claudia de Boozy, and I arrived in my Ford Popular, and given the problems with the clutch, I was grateful that the nice people at Theatre Workshop Coulsdon had arranged a reserved parking spot for me.
“That’s the most reserved you’ve been all night,” Claudia said, acidly. I could tell she was in one of those moods.
Her dress of red chiffon, which I’m sure she’d had in her wardrobe on the night of the Fairfield Halls opening (the original one), was looking a little past its best, though in the December dark, only I was ever close enough to notice.
I was surprised when Claudia told me she had visited the Coulsdon Community Centre before, since she’d led me to believe that she only ventured to Leicester Square and the Haymarket in pursuit of dramatic diversions. But she assured me that this was where she had met Bernard Law Montgomery. “And the old place has hardly changed one bit,” she said, with more fondness than usual.
As we were handed our programme by a very nice young girl called Rosemary and tripped our way to the theatre bar, I was able to explain that this production was what they call “all new”, meaning that the company had pulled it together themselves, based only on the original work of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. And Walt Disney.
Claudia seemed most impressed. She was even more impressed after she took a sip of her Malbec and discovered a glass was just £2.50. She promptly ordered two more, intending one for the interval.
“I have a feeling I might need this,” she said, not as sotto voce as she thought.
I led her away to our seats, in an almost full auditorium, which surprised me, as this was the second week of the run, which ends with a matinee and evening performances this weekend.
I was somewhat relieved not to see too many children in the audience – they can so take the fun out of a night at the theatre – but there seemed to be lots of family groups and grown-up children, many of them wearing their specially purchased Christmas jumpers, pudding earrings and reindeer jewellery. Claudia was unmoved by such overt expressions of seasonal good will.
My first impressions of the production were, however, very good. The set and stage design appeared top-notch, and as the six-piece band began to play, I could sense Claudia tapping the toe of her kitten heels. Thank goodness, I thought, the wine is kicking in.
As you ought to expect with a community production such as this, the ensemble numbers were all performed with energy and gusto, while some of the solos were stronger than others.
Lauren Edmonds makes a pretty and deliberately soppy Beauty, so sweet and kind we had to restrain ourselves from booing her. Oddly, she was followed on stage throughout by a large white rabbit, Harvey, her imaginary friend. “Who would conceive of such a thing?” my friend Claudia said.
Tanya Allison as Deadly McNightshade, the evil witch (Boo! Hiss!), was more to our liking. She looked like Kate Bush with an evil agenda and sang well, too. A bitter, poisonous old hag intent on inflicting misery. We’d get along very well.
Candida (It’s Candeeda!) and Verrucae (it’s Ve-roo-kay!) were gloriously gaudy as played by Mike Brown and Richard Lloyd. They are very centre stage as Beauty’s dreadful ugly sisters. On seeing them, Claudia suggested that this might be why Tony Newman and Jo Negrini had not been seen much around the Town Hall in the past fortnight. I disabused her. This pair had great timing and delivery.
Bruce Montgomery plays a noble Baron Land and Lucy-Ann Bird holds the scenes and story together as William, the Baron’s cheery manservant. There was accomplished and energetic comic acting from Lisa Lloyd as the Cook.
Hannah Montgomery as Fifi de Vale, a French maid, is all Vicky Michelle from ‘Allo! ‘Allo! Even Claudia was laughing at her fruity dumplings.
In a most surreal moment, there was a rendition of Pharrell Williams’ Happy performed by a Tree and a Topiary Bush. We wondered what they’d put in the mince pies. Bizarrely, the Tree was one of my favourites, played by Rory Curnock Cook, who can really act with his eyes.
His sidekick is played by Eloise Brown in the part of, as we were constantly reminded, a well-trimmed Bush.
The point of panto, of course is that it is meant to be thoroughly over the top.
I’d scoured the programme quickly to find who had written the script, but could find no single credit. I imagine, as far as some of the gags were concerned, they seemed to come straight from Les Dennis, or Les Dennis’s Christmas crackers… There were some laugh-out-loud moments, which were well worth waiting for, but in the main, when the audience was rolling in the aisles, they were groaning.
There was a fair amount of old-fashioned innuendo. Warning – one line was expertly timed and delivered by Chris Argles as Basil Privet, the gardener. It was, you might say, a low blow.
It made Claudia sit bolt upright, gasp and cover her mouth in shock. Even the cast had some difficulty stifling giggles and composing themselves.
Certainly the audience around us were enthusiastic, booing and cheering as the production required, and where the cast’s timing was just right.
If Claudia was unimpressed with the knitwear worn in the stalls, she seemed better inclined towards the knitwear used on stage. There was a display of sock-puppetry in the show the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Shari Lewis was a gal; it was all used in an engaging and useful comedic device.
I’d sensed Claudia was getting restless before the end of the first half, which runs for more than an hour, so was relieved when the curtain came down and she was able to return to the bar and was reunited with her wine glass. It was not long after the curtain came up for the start of the second half that Claudia was indulging in a stage whisper of her own, “When’s the second interval?”, though this was more to make use of the facilities than to recover the remainder of the bottle.
She was glad to be there all the way to the end, when Sean Young, who plays a pitiful and conflicted hairy-faced Beast, delivers a final reveal which was well worth waiting for.
“Even I can’t transform myself that well in the mornings,” Claudia shrilled in delight as we made our way back to the car park.
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I thought Croydon had a pantomime all year. It’s called the council!