Deserves to be a permanent winter fixture: Potted Panto at the Garrick reviewed

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

19 December 2020

9:00 AM

Potted Panto

Garrick Theatre, until 10 January 2021

Christmas is Ruined!

The Cockpit, until 26 December

Potted Panto is a 70-minute parody presented by two burlesque comedians. Jeff is a tall, playful bungler and his colleague, Dan, is a squat, dour authoritarian who likes to see everything done efficiently. They leap on stage and declare their plan to present a compendium of the best-known Christmas shows. ‘All six of them,’ says Dan. ‘No, all twelve,’ contradicts Jeff, unfurling a list that includes classics from the TV schedules like A Christmas Carol and Das Boot. He insists that these non-pantos are included in their panto rundown. And so a war of opposites begins. Jeff is all appetite and instinct while Dan stands for reason and method. Or, in shorthand, Jeff is an infant and Dan is an adult. The kids in the audience grasped these polarities immediately and sided with the amiable, incompetent Jeff over the cheerless and proficient Dan. Howls of joy erupted as the two adults came to blows, or slammed cream pies in each other’s faces or flung buckets of manure across the stage.

Bad taste was the order of the day. In the spoof of A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim was played by a cute, limping puppet that climbed on to Scrooge’s shoulder and vomited down the back of his nightgown. If only Dickens had included that in the original. In Aladdin, an elderly merchant confessed to the crowd that he felt suicidal. ‘Can you think of a really nasty way for me to die?’ ‘Find a shotgun,’ said a helpful boy aged six, ‘and shoot yourself.’ In Dick Whittington, the ambitious mayor of London was portrayed as a stammering toff in a blond wig. ‘Do you think a Dick could become prime minister?’ he asked. Yes, came the reply, as long as he promised to give his chums £12 billion of public money to set up a test-and-trace system that didn’t work. Any Downing Street adviser watching this would do well to alert the boss. A gag that reaches the script of a pantomime is likely to reflect a deeply held public perception. This is a wonderful show, inexpensively priced, and full of charm and fun. There’s a touch of Woody Allen about its intellectual deconstruction of the panto genre and the entire apparatus of theatrical presentation. But there’s no trace of cynicism or malignity. The ethos is humane, open-handed and jubilant. In a word, it’s Christmassy. If the pandemic recedes, this fantastic comedy deserves to become a permanent fixture of the winter season.

Christmas is Ruined! has opened at the neglected Cockpit theatre not far from the Edgware Road. This 220-seat black-box space has beautiful internal proportions and deserves to be better known. A lick of paint and a spot of loving care are all it needs.

The show is a morality play set on a local council estate. Late at night on Christmas Eve, a vixen named Fox is rummaging through the bins and the noise disturbs an angry neighbour. ‘Shut the fox up!’ he yells, a phrase that requires careful pronunciation. Fox befriends a bad-tempered wizard, named Beau, who complains about the coming holiday. ‘It’s no good,’ he carps. ‘I don’t have any presents.’ He rejects every gift he receives because ‘it didn’t cost money’ or ‘it didn’t come from the shops’. Fox decides to cheer up this ungrateful misery guts by introducing him to her friends. Rat appears with a store of food that is unconnected to Christmas. ‘I’m celebrating Eid,’ he says. ‘We feast to mark the end of the fast.’ Next Beau is introduced to Crow, who wears a frock-coat and carries an illuminated tree. This has nothing to do with Christmas either. ‘It’s from Diwali, the Hindu light festival.’ Fox and Beau visit a nightclub where a raver on ecstasy hogs the headphones and refuses to share the music. This scene goes unexplained but it may symbolise the introspection and selfishness of western drug culture.

Finally, Beau and Fox reach a pond where a cross-legged Frog is silently meditating while holding a hand bell. (The bell, also unexplained, may be a nod to the culture of Buddhist temples.) Beau is ready to lodge a criticism, as always, and complains that the pond is poorly lit. ‘The moon? Oh great! Not even proper lights.’ Frog speaks up and admonishes Beau in a Californian drawl. ‘You talk so much, how are you ever going to hear anything?’

By the end Beau has learned that Christmas is not about shop-bought gifts but about human warmth and generosity. This is a decent parable told with a lot of playful charm. But it’s hard to know why it overlooks the Bethlehem story while flaunting its knowledge of other religions and their rites and festivals. It’s almost as if they want to junk Jesus, cancel Christ and nix the Nativity.

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