Two posh pantos, not alike in dignity at all. Stephen Fry’s new writer-led pantomime for the Old Vic is so effortlessly superior to Jonathan Harvey’s effort at the Barbican that comparison seems unkind. The real question is: is what Fry has created actually a panto?
On the surface it looks like it ought to be. All the characters are in place, the shouting at the audience is there, and there is, inevitably, enough filthy double entendre to kit out a whole series of Graham Norton. And yet, somehow, it just doesn't feel like the “real thing”. The acid test, I suspect, is that I don't really like pantomimes; I enjoyed this hugely; QED.
From the off, despite a string of jokes about "Old Vic budgets" and a lack of subsidy compared with the National just up the road, the whole business has a real touch of class about it. So much so, in fact, that a joke about the purpose of Tesco being to “keep the riff-raff out of Waitrose” draws by far the loudest and longest laugh from Thursday's, predominantly adult, matinee audience. And, blimey, when they got two children from the audience up on stage they were so advert-perfect, nicely dressed, well-spoken, and polite that if they hadn’t also been so shy (and I hadn’t read accounts of different children elsewhere), I'd have sworn they were stage schooled plants.
The script finds Fry on good form, with an impressive jokes-per-minute ratio, while at the same time delivering a surprisingly engaging, not to mention oddly touching, narrative. It is the moments of “proper” pantomime business that feel tagged on as an afterthought. When the scene in which Cinderella learns that she won't be going to the ball descends into a custard pie fight, it seems beyond surreal. Fry also manages to work a fair bit of slightly darker material into the song lyrics along with the fluff, nearly turning Prince Charming into Sondheim’s self-loathing singleton Bobby in the process.
What is most interesting, however, is the nature of the filth on display here. In a recent piece for the Times, David Aaronovitch made the point that the British attitude toward intimacy - predominantly to snigger at it as smut - paints us as a chronically sexually immature nation. Here, smut is deployed in a very different way. These are knob gags written by someone who sounds like he might actually be quite fond of knobs. The humour here is not so much tittering as envelope-pushing knowingness - a dreaming Cinderella, half woken from her dreams of the prince by an early morning rooster, remarks: “what an urgent, insistent cock” - witty, yes, but certainly not coy. Elsewhere, one of the ugly sisters shrieks, “Don't palm me off with margarine, if you're going to palm me off, use butter." Pure filth, but probably the first time a pantomime has even faintly invoked the spirit of Last Tango in Paris. Elsewhere, Fry’s trademark erudition is on display, with quotes from Plato and the best version I’ve heard of the old actor’s Midsummer Night’s Dream joke with Sandi Toksvig claiming: “I gave my Bottom to John Humphrys’s Snout”
The performances here are also a cut above what one generally expects from a panto.
__ __ as Buttons comes on like a cross between a likeable Blue Peter presenter and a lovelorn sixth member of Take That. Much has been made of this Buttons’s part in the first ever “out” gay pantomime romance, and it would take the most hardened bigot imaginable not to find it sweetly tender. Although, for all that it is laudable, the same-sex romance is still kept very much at a level where parents could make their own decisions about what to explain. In-yer-face it ain’t.
Pauline Collins is effortlessly efficient as a tough-talking, no-nonsense fairy godmother, criticising Cinders for her insipidity and inanition. Sandi Toksvig is clearly in her element as a moustachioed Stephen Fry-ish narrator. While Mark Lockyer (last seen, appropriately enough, in The Ugly One at the Royal Court) rounds off a successful year with a brilliant turn as ugly sister Dolce (his sister is Gabbana), looking almost libellously like a certain troubled contemporary North London, be-beehived singer.
At the end of the day, it is nonsense, of course, but good quality, highly enjoyable nonsense, nonetheless. Lord knows how much they're charging for tickets, though.