“a super night’s entertainment to be enjoyed by all”
The Producer before the start of this show asks the audience to ‘go ballastic’ and the packed house duly obliges, knowing just when the right times are to boo and cheer, and gives the show a worthy ovation at the end of the evening.
And I am not surprised, for this is a wonderful family show, directed by Michael Gattrell, and performed by a very strong cast. The singing is powerful, the dancing is energetic. There isn’t a great deal of plot or tension, but this is panto! The show programme offers just a ten-sentence plot synopsis but there is so much more going on here and for those expecting a show within the tradition of Christmas pantomime, this production ticks all the boxes.
Matt Crosby as Widow Twankey sets the standard for the show. Batting his over-large eye lashes in a rendition of “Hanky-Panky” (it rhymes with Twankey!), he sings in confident gravelly bass tones, and we know we are going to be in safe hands.
Aladdin (Carl Au) is a wide-eyed dreamer with a Scouse accent. Both Au and Isaac Stanmore as Wishy-Washy, in a delightfully over-the-top performance, show cheeky charm and play well together. A messy laundry slapstick scene involving Twankey and Wishy-Washy is a highlight of the evening for many.
Rolan Bell as Abanazar devilishly milks his inner villain, declaiming rhyming couplets in velvety tones. Flashes and smoke bombs welcome his every entry.
Princess Poppy (Megan-Hollie Robertson) is the necessary love interest but she and Aladdin need to work a little more on their spark if we are to believe in their secret love.
The all-important Genie is played by Jak Allen-Anderson as a very tall, acrobatic game show host whilst Aiesha Pease is The Spirit of the Ring who helps move along the plot and enjoys some powerful soul numbers.
All the principals get their own moment in the spotlight in this show and all sing brilliantly. Au excels in his ballad as he flies on the magic carpet to rescue the Princess. There is some nice stage craft here too though Aladdin needs to relax more into it. The most surprising turn of the evening is Abanazar’s rock inspired solo “I Want it All” but the standout song of the show, amongst several contenders, is Poppy’s poignant solo as she looks to find the confidence to start living her life, beautifully performed by Robertson.
The stage comes alive in each of the full ensemble numbers. With music from a live four-piece pit band (Musical Director Dean McDermott) and singing reinforced by a six-strong ensemble led by the ever-smiling Dance Captain Hettie Pearson, the dance choreography by Kevan Allen is effective and performed with high energy throughout.
Writer Al Lockhart-Morley provides an engaging script with strong and funny repartee. There is a small amount of innuendo for the older ones in the audience to knowingly chuckle at, but this show isn’t smutty. And there are no politics either. Otherwise, with just a few references to lockdown, there is an endless flow of the corniest cracker jokes, puns and amusing word play. Gently mocking references to local Cambridge amenities draw appreciative laughs.
This production is a super night’s entertainment to be enjoyed by all. Princess Poppy says at one point, “it is incredible, but it isn’t true” and that could apply to this whole idea of pantomime. But this is the season for it, and that is just fine. Oh yes, it is.
For anyone not in the know, The Good Life (by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey) was one of BBC TV’s most successful situation comedy programmes airing between 1975 and 1978 which elevated its four main actors to near national treasure status. How then are we to judge this new stage version (adapted and directed by Jeremy Sams), taking the characters as they are without censuring them for not being the faces and voices that we so loved? Well, needs must.
The curtain rises on the morning of Tom Good’s (Rufus Hound) fortieth birthday and his feeling that life is not all it could be. By the end of the day he has quit his job designing cereal box plastic toys and embarked on a mission with wife Barbara (Sally Tatum) to become self-sufficient, turning their suburban house and garden into a freeholding along with chickens, pigs and a marauding goat called Stephanie (a deliberately humorous animatronic puppet). Next door live their friends, haughty and houseproud Margo (Preeya Kalidas) and Tom’s now ex-boss Jerry Leadbetter (Dominic Rowan).
Sams explains in his programme note of the contemporary resonances there are to be heard in this story but the overwhelming feeling is of a period piece. The characters are not much developed beyond what we know already, the biggest laughs come from references to chicken Kiev and black forest gateau, and despite some additional storyline from Sams – including one scene involving the smoking of pot which is unlikely to have made it onto 1970s TV – the key episodes follow events from the TV series.
An ingenious set design (Michael Taylor) incorporates two revolving flats that rotate to reveal either the Good’s kitchen or the Leadbetter’s living room. 1970s furniture – sideboard, hostess trolley, electronic organ, serving hatch – provide the period feel. (A banner in the final scene places us specifically in 1977).
Four loosely-linked scenes ensue of the ups-and-downs of the Good’s new life, and how it affects their relationship with the Leadbetters but the sit-com format over two hours disappoints. When the main joke of one scene is that ‘the Pigman has nobbled the cake’ and the drama reaches its climax with an inebriated tango and a conga around the living room, it all feels just a little lame. An attempt for greater poignancy with a story involving Barbara’s attempts to save the life of a new-born piglet is too long and clumsily staged.
The energy of the ensemble cannot be faulted. There is some excellent quickfire repartee between Tom and Barbara, and Rufus Hound seems most comfortable in his role, but what is missing is any sparkle between the couple. We should see their shared enjoyment when they tease Margo – who does not understand why something is amusing – and the occasional innuendo should seem naughty but falls flat. Next door, Preeya Kalidas does her snooty best as Margo but we only see one side of her character and her propriety always slows the pace. Dominic Rowan does a fine job as Jerry placating his wife and toadying to his boss. Surprisingly, the star turn of the evening comes from Nigel Betts whose four cameo roles with different costumes, hair, and accents are much enjoyed.
There are laughs aplenty to be had in this amiable entertainment which evokes memories of comfy afternoons in front of the telly, a glass of Liebfraumilch in the hand, but, as Tom says right at the start, “is that it?”
Reviewed by Phillip Money
Photography by Dan Tsantilis
The Good Life
Cambridge Arts Theatre until 13th November then UK Tour continues