REVIEW: Schools’ catty panto battle!

Panto claws . . . Alex Lilley, left, as Puss in Boots in the Willows School panto production, and Vicki Jamieson takes to the stage at Bridgetown as Tommy in Dick Whittington. Photo: Mark Wiliamson W5/1/18/0032

Elaine Binks reviews Dick Whittington, Bridgetown School, 2nd February; and Puss in Boots, The Willows, 16th February… and declares the winner of ‘the funniest joke’

Hear ye, hear ye! Thanks to the tireless efforts of certain game individuals at two local primary schools, pantomime is alive and very well in Stratford.

The so called ‘cat fight’ between Bridgetown’s Dick Whittington and The Willows’ Puss in Boots, to see which production would deliver the funniest joke, called more for applause than claws. The tummy-tickling scrap reduced both casts to kittens, dutifully attending the rival show and lapping up the barrage of cheap shots as a gesture of mutual support and shared sense of fun.

Bridgetown were up first with Dick’s meteoric rise to public office. Principal boy, Sally Newman, masterfully won the crowd over but even she would have lost her way in London had it not been for the witty and cunning companionship of Vicky Jameson as Tommy the Cat.

Other standout performers included Lisa Pinkerton as the workshy Idle Jack. She had no difficulty scaling up from the classroom to auditorium with excellent comic timing. Doubling up as the show’s director, Lisa was anything but lazy.

Following last year’s debut pantomime, expectations were high but not beyond the comic talents of Richard Milward who played the dame, Sarah the Cook. The former school caretaker was back in the bosom of his panto pals, paying as much attention to his costumes as to his naughty one-liners. The best actors, in a supporting role, had to be his two colanders.

As the evil King Rat, Louise Millward was comfortable in her furry skin while Janet Kempton was sublime as the rhyming Fairy Bow Belle, desperate for love and her next prompt. Equally likeable was Captain’s Mate, Phil Smith. Reminiscent of Frank Spencer, he got his biggest laugh for getting a much anticipated punchline completely wrong; priceless.

Bridgetown scored well for including pupils, past and present, in its line-up. The little faces on the menacing ‘Ratlings’ were endearing as were the young sailors and sea creatures in the choreographed musical numbers. The south of the river school also deserves top marks for set design and props which were a credit to the dedicated production team.

Fast forward two weeks and The Willows were ready to present the latest reincarnation of Puss in Boots. In contrast to their rival novices, Willows have been at it for 42 years. This was Puss’s sixth outing but there were plenty of topical gags to freshen it up.

Performances were strong and polished. Our heroes Puss and Roger, played by Alex Lilley and Amy Parish, were nothing short of perfection, moving the plot along nicely and stealing as many laughs as they could in otherwise straight roles. Natural double act, Sam Flynn and Jules Mingins played the scheming, nit-twit brothers Dodger and Bodger with all the inadequacy and slapstick required.

Defenders of the realm, Sergeant Chip and Private Pin, saw Justin Keaney and Lisa Campion at their pathetic best. Beautifully oblivious to this was Queen Ruloverus (Jo Milward) who was too busy husband hunting for her daughter, Princess Alicia, played by the easily loveable Jo Smith.

In the absence of children, The Willows prefer to work with animals and chose a panto horse for their ‘Argh factor’. Little did Emma Smith and Katrina Sinclair know they were creating comedy gold by misjudging their exit on the opening night.

With a range of baked snacks to go with her eye-watering crudities, Dame Kneady proved to be the ultimate show stealer. Despite the big baps, Paul Stacey’s manhood was never in doubt and the generous helpings of double-entendres were baked to perfection.

Big hand goes to Richard Sandle-Keyes who put his distinctive stamp on Pete Butler’s original script. He showed almost as much credibility as the show’s director as playing the royal physician.

This duelling review could not possibly praise all the deserving actors, dancers, musicians and crew from both schools. It is also not the place to remark on missed punchlines, ropey singing and collapsing scenery. It is intended to be a celebration of a very rare and valuable form of entertainment. With the recent demise of the St Gregory’s pantomime after 33 years, which I was personally associated with, it has become even rarer in Stratford.

School pantomime is a gruelling but precious medium for bringing the wider school community together. It is also a fabulous way to put ‘fun’ into much-needed fundraising. The happy memories they create not only stay with the children who watch it; they stay with the teachers, teaching assistants, administrators, governors, parents and even school chaplains who volunteer to take part. (Yes that was Holy Trinity’s minister, Phil Harper, as the Willows’ henchman).

Bridgetown Primary raised in excess of £3,000. The Willows are still counting but look set to exceed £5,000. Both ran slick fundraising ventures: big advertisers in glossy programmes, elaborate raffle prizes and popular drinks are sold in the bar. The pupils need to know how lucky they are to have a crowd of shameless adults prepared to do this for them.

Now, back to the cat fight. The time has come for me to justify my free tickets/interval drinks and judge the best joke. It is never an easy task when most of the funniest ideas are visual or inappropriate to print. The Willows’ best contender was the Frenchman/Henchman greeting. However, this year’s winner, by a cat’s whisker, is Bridgetown for their laugh-out-loud reconstruction of the potter’s wheel scene in the movie Ghost. ‘Sarah the Cook’ invited a member of the audience out for a ‘bit of spooning’. As Unchained Melody played, the audience were reduced to a pulp.