Rapunzel, the latest Christmas offering from The Park Theatre, and the third installment in their Chronicles of Waa series, is a refreshing take on your average pantomime. Many conventions of the style are thrown out the window – there’s no Dame, no-one shouts “he’s behind you!’ Most exciting, perhaps, is that the romantic leads actually get scenes of character development. This is altogether a classier and more progressive take.
In the magical land of Püss Püss, King Gerard (Rolan Bell) and Queen Gerardine (Aretha Ayeh) are tricked into handing over their newborn baby to con-man The Great Gazombees (Mark Cameron, who co-writes with director Jez Bond). Eighteen years later Rapunzel (also Ayeh) is locked in her tower and, with the throne about to be seized, will Prince Corbyn (Alex Hope) be able to return her to the palace in time?
In Püss Püss, Bond and Cameron have crafted a fantasy world to rival that of Narnia. There is little to no set to help them, and yet the detailing of this land is all in the script – we hear about it’s geographical structure, breeds of wildlife, even the mating calls of its birds. The language is peppered with little idioms; Wonderland via the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange. There’s a real sense of world-building to Rapunzel, and this is very much appreciated. The dialogue too is fast paced, witty and oh-so-heavy on the wordplay. If you’re a pun-fanatic you’ll love it, if not it will become tiresome.
There’s also some great original songs, penned by Bond, that make for such a nice break – how many pantos are using adaptations of songs from Frozen nowadays? ‘Jubilation’, the joyous occasion number will have you humming the chorus on the tube home, but it’s the poignant ‘We Were Meant To Be’ that is the most impressive; sung by Gerardine as she mourns the loss of her child, it is a well-judged song that may surprise you in how moving it is.
Ayeh is excellent as both Mother and Daughter, expertly capturing the former’s warmth and humour, and the latter’s teenage, nervous energy. Elsewhere, Hope is effective as the socialist Corbyn (yes the joke is made), Bell has fantastic comic timing as the foppish King, and Avita Jay makes for a very likeable Dr Chuff, despite her part being quite underwritten. Sadly, Cameron’s Gazombees is more irritating than truly menacing – it’s also a bit rich for him to heckle an audience member for their phone going off, considering he was fluffing so many of his lines. This is something prevalent throughout Rapunzel. Ironically considering the genre, there are far too many asides to the audience when things go wrong – “I think this bit can be cut” is a line that stepped over into actor indulgence.
Unfortunately, for all the imagination that has gone into telling this story, it’s actually quite hard to follow. Character motivations are inconsistent, potentially interesting dramatic beats are skipped over (Rapunzel’s daring escape from her tower is largely offstage) and the ending is about as tacked on as you can get, even for a pantomime. There are also some curious additions to the cast in two puppeteered football commentators, who make infrequent appearance throughout to tell us what’s going on. They’re not offensive in any way, but they do feel decidedly out of place and detract from what’s happening onstage.
This truly was a very creative reimagining of what we have come to expect at Christmas. The imagination and storytelling is up there – the actual tale just needs to be as interesting as the way it’s being told. Nonetheless, this was a very enjoyable evening and one that families should seek out over this festive period.
Rapunzel is playing The Park Theatre until 2 January 2016. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website. Photo by Darren Bell.