The Three Musketeers

It’s easy to be a Scrooge about panto season – often saturated with jokes you can see coming a mile off, predictable audience interaction and formulaic structures.  But it’s important not to forget how enjoyable a good one can be if you just allow yourself to get caught up in the silly fun of it all – and Charles Court Opera’s The Three Musketeers is a very good one indeed.

A loose retelling of the novel sees D’Artagnan (Matthew Kellett) transplanted from his family home in rural France to a convent, where he has grown up orphaned. This may be a tragedy for him but is a joy for writer-director-performer John Savournin, who is able to make lots of jokes about nuns. Here, D’Artagnan meets the titular Musketeers, who have long since disbanded, but when their young friend is threatened by the evil Cardinal Richelieu (a gleefully wicked Kevin Jones), they rejoin to protect him. The cast are brilliant across the board, and largely cross-dressed, with Nicola Jolley, Lexi Hutton and Amy J Payne bringing great charm and bags of comic timing to the iconic parts of Aramis, Athos and Portos. Meanwhile, Savournin shines as the inevitable panto dame – in this case, the convent’s Reverend Mother. She is absolutely the highlight of the show, and Savournin seems equally at ease bantering with the audience as producing a stunning baritone from somewhere behind his fake breasts.

Because, as you may have guessed from the company name, CCO are ordinarily an opera-producing group, and the incredible vocal talents of its performers are the show’s real gift. A pantomime is, an annual event in the Charles Court calendar, and the performers clearly take great joy in everything about this much-maligned genre. If it is a little slow off the mark to begin with, all is forgiven by the end of the first act. Parts of the earlier scenes feel bit flat, with the jokes getting little response from an otherwise kind press night audience, but by the time Porthos is drunkenly belting out ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ ten minutes in, there is a sense that things have really got going.

The Rosemary Branch pub houses a much larger theatre than it would appear from the outside, but this production’s care, energy and enthusiasm could easily fill a bigger space. It feels like a strange place to see a panto, but there’s something hilarious in the incongruity of watching a show that is so all-singing and all-dancing in a fringe venue – it actually feels rather a treat. There is ingenious use of space and it’s a joy to watch this talented company rise to the challenges of the venue with such ease.

With highlights that include a remarkable rendition of a Bonnie Tyler classic, several excellent costume designs (do look out for the additions to the Reverend Mother’s habit) and some amazing three-piece harmonies from the musketeers, CCO’s so-called ‘boutique panto’ is an unmissable show for fans of the genre. This is pantomime in its purest form: no big names and no gimmicks, just lots of silliness and joy, joy, joy.

The Three Musketeers plays at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, Islington, until 9 January 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Rosemary Branch Theatre website. Photography by Bill Knight.