Oh yes, it certainly is

pantomime cow

Top rump: A helping hand from a . . . helping hand for Emily May Smith as Sal. Pictures: Robert Day

Oh no, it isn’t

B2, Coventry Belgrade

****

JUST how much of the bizarre can you fit into an hour’s staging? Oh No It Isn’t passes in a swirl of wit and paradox, audience-teasing and mock-tension.

It’s the last that gives the show it punch. Something heinous is in the air. Have we just witnessed a murder? Or are we just about to?

Local writer and director Nick Walker manages to create mayhem – backstage and frontstage alike – from an accident-prone production of Jack and the Beanstalk – in which the quirks of the actors, rather than their actual roles, create a series of will-they-won’t-they mishaps that offer, as the author says, a ‘spikier’, grown-up take on the traditional panto.    

From all the gun-toting, and the confusion between ‘prop’ and supposed ‘real’ weapons (‘not a Smith and Wesson; a Glock’), not to mention poisoned apples, it grows increasingly difficult to believe that a member of the four-man cast won’t inevitably polish one of the others off. Jealousies flourish, cordial dislikes abound. Everyone loathes everyone else’s guts. Yet even given that, the increasingly contorted finale still produces a delightful surprise.

The four or so characters – played by Golden gooseRichard Kidd and Tom Shepherd, with Emily May Smith and Katy Stephens – are part of, or the whole of, a pantomime cast. For the first half, we see what goes on behind stage as three – Daisy the Cow, the evil but twitchy Giant (the increasingly funny Smith) - plot behind the back of Jack (Stephens), who is busy maintaining the beanstalk action onstage.  

Katy Stephens as Jackie and Emily May Smith as Sal again, this time in persuasive mood, with a goose that appears to shoot golden eggs into the air

There’s a good deal of flapping around at the start, abetted by bovine humour (the non-coordination of the back half – Kidd – is a hoot), which establish the zany nature of the show. But it’s really with the entry of Stephens’ Jack (‘I grew up a poor boy’) that things pick up. The script becomes saucier (‘well, my Cox is bigger than yours’, or ‘We’ll soon find out who’s firing blanks’; Jack even prises amusing smut out of Hedda Gabler); wittier and – to the audience – recognisable local allusions, including to Nuneaton’s Larry Grayson, proliferate (‘You seem to be confusing this with a night out in Far Gosford Street’); accents (from the girls) and the all-round bitchiness are funnier; a trio of ludicrous ditties drums up audience participation, there’s an insane chase, the delivery sharpens. It gains punch. The chaps, well rehearsed (Shepherd very strong at the outset), maintain the amiable shambles, but the girls (including Smith’s wonderful prospective father-in-law Count – ‘I don’t trust the vicious Count) add the icing.

What also helps are the props and costumes. The cow (‘she was just choking’; ‘she’s cold; in fact she’s Friesian’) is as perfect for its bizarre murder-abetting role as any pantomime offering; the goose, which finally furnishes the crucial lethal weapon, is a treat. But the array of costume paraphernalia at the side also furnishes just the right amount of stage nonsense; the winner in the first half is the delicious, goosy backcloth (which we see from behind, and finally from in front). The design of that hits the jackpot.

The other clever feature about Walker’s production is that it builds to its finale with growing energy, helped by this cast’s wonderful ability to alternate between taking itself ultra-seriously, like a Raymond Chandler sizzler, and not taking itself seriously at all. That’s a fine art, and it does indeed make for a sophisticated kind of not-quite-pantomime. It doesn’t claim to be much more than a Christmas entertainment; and as that, terrifically spoken and slyly acted, it certainly passes muster. To 27-12-14.

Roderic Dunnett

09-12-14 

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