Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates Dec.17th, ’11

Christmastime is pantotime! And  Panto with John Barrowman always makes for good fun and two hours of laughter and hilarity. Despite the very formulaic and strict frame of all Panto stories there’s enough leeway not only for a lot of extra laughter, but also for  extemporisation and banter between the actors themselves and the actors and the audience.

Last year, while we were freezing in icy Glasgow, John Barrowman promised us Barbados – little did we know (copyright Bev) he meant on stage…

Because this year’s Panto is Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates, cleverly starting off in Glasgow, where lucky Robinson (in red  pants and a red and golden sleeveless vest) has found a treasure map under deck of his ship. Now he, his father Captain Krankie and his identical twin brother wee Jimmy (“if Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito could pull it off so can we!”) are looking for a crew to find the treasure and be able to reign over Glasgow, over Scotland and even … Paisley!! Unfortunately they are not alone in this quest: There’s the pirate Captain Blackheart (the incomparable Pete Gallagher in wig and make-up as Captain Jack – “Wait!!! there’s only one Captain Jack!!” – Sparrow, or Captain J. Depp…) who has searched for the map for years and in the end found a mermaid (the woman who had rejected his proposal and therefore found herself with a fish tail – only to become a maiden again by true love’s kiss) who inadvertedly spilled the beans. He “offers” his help and becomes part of the crew.

The ship soon is on its way to the Caribbean, when Blackheart finally reveals that he is the pirate everyone was so afraid of. Though Robinson hadn’t shown him the map (Blackheart: “The map, the map the map, he has the map…” to an improvised belly dance, to which Robinson says: “Nothing escapes you, no?”) Blackheart now casts a spell and creates a storm that has Robinson’s ship sinking – so that he can grab the map.

Lucky for Robinson the magical mermaid is there to the rescue – not only is she in love with the Glaswegian, she doesn’t realise that Robinson has fallen for her, too. So out of love she has Robinson – in a hilarious red and white swimsuit from the 20ies, a yellow floating tyre and flippers – breathing and talking under the sea. The normally tight swimsuit is just loose enough to be decent, and John milks the scene with the huge tyre till everybody is crying with laughter. Now the new 3-D-effects start and they are even better than last year’s. We get bubbles and stone-explosions, an enormous squid, terrifying fish, crabs and finally a shark that had me flinch every time it emerged!

Then Robinson is finally swept ashore and – “be quiet, this is my big fainting scene!!” – lies there in the sand while the mermaid summons Man Friday (Jeremy Fontanet) to guide Robinson to the treasure before Blackheart has the chance to rob it. Robinson wakes up  and – “MAN if that’s Friday, I’d love to know what Saturday looks like!” – drools just as much over the half naked built actor as every female in the audience. He even fails to recognise the mermaid 😉

With Friday he’s on his way to the treasure,they have to fight a last obstacle – a huge Krakken, a sea monster of epic proportions that seems to fly into the audience and breathes fire! in a duet (John said it was planned as another solo for him, but he had to change costumes again, so Jeremy sings part of it) Robinson and Friday fight the monster (and John’s voice is absolutely marvellous, soaring over the orchestra and clear as a victorious trumpet) and Robinson slays the beast.

Meanwhile the Krankies emerge from the sea – they have survived, too. Thanks to the friendly natives led by Friday they all rest for the night (while acrobats “the Acromaniacs” show off their skills) in Friday’s house. The villa is yet another Panto-speciality with its revolving doors and closets that open with ghosties and ghoulies in them…

What ensues now is the most hilarious threesome I have ever had the pleasure to see. Some ppl have deemed this scene improper for children – BEFORE they had even seen it, mind you! I needed new make-up after that, I cried so hard with laughter. Wee Jimmy sees all the scary ghosts, Robinson – in superman pajamas –  is in the closet (“You never were in the closet!” “Shut up, we’re in enough trouble as it is!”), Jimmy and Robinson are in the same bed, when another ghost chases them out of it, (to much screaming of the audience) and they hide in Captain Krankie’s bed. Jimmy’s the last one to clamber onto the bed (humming “Memoriiiies” while straddling her husband) and falls onto Robinson (“Fantasiiiiies!”) in his attempt to find the middle spot of the bed. As Jimmy’s hungry he dives under the covers to find something to eat – and finds a banana. (Captain: “that’s mine!!” Robinson: “if you find a salami, that’s mine!”) and indeed Jimmy waves with a huuuuge slab of sausage which causes first the Captain and then Robinson to fall out of the bed. When they finally are able to rest someone poops and the twins run away.

The next day finds the three together with Friday as they  start their trip through 3-D-ghosts and spiders to find the treasure. There is a run in with a scary ogre in a magical forest and finally the only obstacle left is Pirate Blackheart who gets deterred by Wee Jimmy masked as Beyonce with a growing belly! the young audience (I sat between 5 year olds at one time) loves that kind of humor – they were screaming and singing along and laughing. Unfortunately there is yet another run in with Blackheart with a hilarious sword fighting scene with Robinson – but again Wee Jimmy (this time as Spider Man) saves the day and Blackheart is banned to …Paisley!  Now a child from the audience gets to come up the stage to unlock the treasure trove. And then all draws to an end – but wait!! What about the magical mermaid?

Indeed – and thankfully Friday is not jealous (“Don’t flatter yourself!”) – there still is work to be done: Robinson, who has fallen for the mermaid, too, finds her resting on a boulder, and his kiss (to the chanting of excited kids: KISS HER KISS HER!!) breaks the spell. A lovely girl again, she says yes when he proposes!

After a final part from the Krankies (which gives everyone time to change costumes again) there’s the final curtain. And nobody has actually realised it has been two and a half hours of brilliant, innuendo laden, fun, clean, laughable, traditional Panto. Everyone leaves with a smile on their faces, after a great – often first – night at the theatre.

Much has been said about the “unfortunate” interview the Krankies gave just as their Panto started – that they were swingers in the swinging 70ies… well, they incorporate the interview into their jokes when the audience doesn’t consist of children only 😉 and it’s absolutely hilarious. John is his naughty, fun loving self who is able to crack up in the middle of the scene, bringing the audience with him in helpless laughter. It’s just fabulous family entertainment along the lines of traditional panto. And it’s great!

 

addendum from January

one of the tiny guests, Adam, was absolutely hilarious – the wee one answered to “what did you get for christmas?” with: A fishtank and.. jammies” and the look on his face when he said jammies was absolutely priceless. John was basically breaking down on the stage. he then asked, “so what about the fish in the fishtank” to which the boy said: they were all sick….” John flat on the floor and Man Friday barely holding up and having to hide his face. John, laboriously coming up for air: “They’re all dead?” in broad scottish to which the boy sagely nodded. John: “Get the boy some more fish!!!”

 

That said I have two tiny complaints with this year’s panto:

Whilst I really like the Krankies – they are a hilarious pair and I’m happy that they got under contract with Gavin Barker Associates! – I was a bit disappointed that their big last number was basically the same as last year. Now I do realise that very few people are as obses… determined as I am to see more than one show of the same panto per year, but for me it was a bit of a let down – most of all because I think that the Krankies are not a one-act-act… And as soon as I post I learn (thank you, Stephen) that this is their “signature” piece that people would feel cheated out of if the Krankies didn’t do it. They’d done it for 40 years and it is part of their act. I’m very grateful for the explanation!

The second bit I was not too keen about: this time acrobats were hired, four men doing a brilliant show with a trampoline, a chest used in acrobatics and a mattress. It was really awesome, their mastery of their bodies amazing. What it had to do with the show though, will forever be beyond me.  I learned that an acrobatic number was a must in traditional panto, so I understand why they were there, but as much as I admire their skills, the act left me rather unimpressed. But that’s just me of course. I thought this part and the identical Krankie number made the second act a bit slower than the pulsing and mad-dash of the first part that had us all breathless from all that happened on stage and from laughter.

The song list (as I keep telling my lovely readers, I am LOUSY at the song lists)

Hey Ho, we’re pirates till the end

Sondheim’s Putting it together

Celebration

That special moment

the duet during the Krakken fight that was written especially for Panto last year

a brilliant solo for Pete Gallagher

All the single ladies

dirrrty wee boy

but you love me Daddy

and John has at least two solo numbers but I can’t remember them right now, sigh. help is greatly appreciated.

oh and this time there’s one other thing:  Do not reproduce this review or parts of it without asking. If you have something to say, comment and I’ll answer. thank you

Haunted Child Dec. 3rd ’11

The official summary reads: A small boy is driving his mother to distraction – waking at night, hearing phantom noises and fixating on his absent father. When he glimpses a figure prowling the house at night, a shadow is cast which gradually strips away his childhood certainties.

listen to Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels

And this is probably the least favorable synopsis one could give – even though the play derives its title from these first scenes, where Julie tries to calm her son by talking about his nightmares and calling him a “haunted child”. But there is so much more to this play by Joe Penhall – the little boy just seems to be a catalyst for all that ensues in the next two hours.

Because the play does not just deal with the hauntings of a little boy, but with everything that haunts the grown-ups too – their fear of being left alone, their need to belong, their sense of responsibility or their lack thereof and their regrets. There is a veil of sadness hanging over this family, that clouds their judgement and makes them vulnerable – just as vulnerable as a little boy who all of a sudden hears someone moving in the attic, hears noises that shouldn’t be there.

His mother doesn’t believe him, until one night she stumbles down the stairs and almost runs into her husband Douglas, who disappeared weeks ago, left work and family behind to find a way out of his bottomless desperation, his depression that had engulfed him since his father had died years ago.

But the man who comes back into Julie’s life is not the man she knew – not only has he lost his teeth and a considerable amount of weight, judging by the way his clothes are hanging on him, he also looks disheveled, his hair too long and his beard scraggly. But what is probably the most disturbing: Douglas has found religion – in his quest to escape his desperation he has been picked up by an apparently charismatic guru, who deprived him of sleep, food and drink and pressed him into a set of rules that leave no room for individuality. “I believed you were dead – and in some ways this is worse…” she says at one point when faced with alien ideas and concepts that have no place in her reality. And yet – still Julie hopes for a continuation of their life together as they knew it – a life spent as a family, when the brainwashed stranger in her husband’s body responds to her just like her husband did – even though his guru had told them to abandon all carnality for good (and masturbate to specific pictures provided by the guru if nature becomes too overwhelming).

The next morning becomes unbearable to Julie, though. Douglas, guilt ridden that he has sinned, does a weird cleansing ritual and plans on going back to his group – after selling the house that Julie tried to make into a home for their son, handing the money over to his guru as an entrance fee. It is only then Julie accepts that he is beyond help from her – now she is fighting for her child as Douglas tries to take the boy with him – a child needs adventure! he says while she says: a child needs structure and rules. He leaves.

And comes back dirty, battered and alone – without money, he was worth nothing to his group, was nothing and abandoned again and so came back to a place where mother and son had come to a fragile peace about the fact that Douglas would never return. He comes home to his suitcases packed…

The play gives you flashes of lives, glimpses into the souls of three people, with little structure, but a lot of psychological insight wrapped into monologues and dialogues that have you poised on the edge of your seat. At first I missed the classical structure of any play but now I think Penhall’s way of telling this story, in scenes that seem to be ripped out of the lives of his protagonists, even deepens the drama and heightens the sense of urgency that comes with Douglas’ desperate attempts of finding any  meaning in his life.

Of course the play depends on excellent actors to pull off the tension, to make the drama believable. The Royal Court Theatre was therefore very lucky to get Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels as their Julie and Douglas. Both actors have known each other for years, and been friends, and their rapport on stage is amazing. Their intensity and the chemistry they have together create the perfect environment for a midnblowingly brilliant performance. These two together create exactly the sort of magic theatre should be. Such is rare (only Holding The Man comes to mind as equally awe inspiring) and should be celebrated. And it will make me come back in January.

Addendum January

so I saw it again – and it was even better. They had tightened the play, tweaked and cut it – not even that much, but obviously very well, because it now worked better, the scenes flowing into each other with greater precision without losing any significant text or subtext. On the contrary – now the play makes one thing clear:  They are all haunted.

One of the pivotal scenes is where Douglas tries to convince Julie to come with him into his cult – into his world – a world where there is guidance, where there are no responsibilities other than observe the spiritual leader’s words. A world where they can discover what they really want, according to Doug, where they can be children again. And Julie is on the verge of accepting all this – a tempting thought: to be freed  from your responsibilities as a grown up, a mother, a working class woman, and being guided to spirituality, to become a child… but what about her son? He IS a child – what is he supposed to become? And how are they supposed to have more children within this group if they have to forsake all carnality? And as she asks this questions, the answers Doug is providing sound like out of a badly written book, they are empty. Julie is too grounded to be sucked into the cult’s rationalising – she sends her husband away, without his money.

When he comes back battered and destroyed, kneeling at Julie’s feet, it becomes clear: He is the child desperately seeking any kind of hold on life. And even his strange ramblings about his soul being part of his son, his own father’s soul being part of him and therefore part of his son too, so his son might even be his father – a litany that had confused his beloved child, becomes clear and true to an extent. Because his own son now stands next to his mother, and both pat the sobbing man’s head, a comforting gesture used to calm a little boy…

the packed suitcases now symbolising more an end of an era, the era of Doug being in charge, rather than his ejection.

As I said before – the play grew and got even better, both Sophie Okonedo and Ben Daniels were riveting, and made the audience geel for and with them. I am very lucky to have seen this play at the beginning and the end of the run. The last performances were absolutely AWESOME!

 

Whatsonstage – I couldn’t have said it any better!!!

The Guardian

The ArtsDesk

The Wharf

The Financial Times