Mirror, mirror in the village hall…
A review by Ian Hembrow (reproduced with the kind permission of Ian Hembrow and Cumnor Parish News)
Everything goes ‘Snow White on the night’ for The Cumnor Players
The chilling opening chords of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ raised the curtain on Cumnor’s 2009 pantomime – and set the scene for a darkly entertaining and fun version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Strong performances, accomplished musicianship and top-notch costumes, make-up, choreography, sound, lighting and stage design made for a memorable evening of traditional panto, with lots of local flavour – and a well-cast Breville toasted sandwich maker turned defibrillator!
Scriptwriter Ian Bannerman stripped back the story to include some of the Grimm Brothers’ original material, then weaved in lots of the familiar Disney elements, contemporary references and even a Sylvia Plath poem. And hidden away in the script were some serious themes about healthy eating (avoid poisoned apples) and our society’s transition from the industrial age to the era of services and information technology – bit of politics there, ladies and gentlemen.
For it is against this backdrop that the seven dwarves (including newcomers Brainy, Brawny, Snotty and Windy) find themselves made redundant from the mine and now working in a call centre. This produced some of the best jokes of the show, with a running gag about the team being ‘short-staffed’ and their recorded message promising that ‘one of our dwarves will be with you shortly.’ Variously afflicted by a range of physical and behavioural conditions (and terrific regional accents), the dwarves gave the show its comedy backbone and displayed some surprising talents – including a Snotty moonwalk!
Thirteen-year-old Sarah Bridge took the lead part with great confidence and grace; making the most of her ballet poise and delivering her lines with clarity, precision and timing. Our heroine needed all this poise when confronted by the bustling, vamped-up evil of Queen Vanity (Jo Coffey). Close and long-suffering by her side was Jacqui Lewis, who gave the stand-out solo performance of the night as the bloodthirsty Jack U La, including a thunderous, Transylvanian-toned rendition of Michael Jackson’s (him again) BAD! to open the second act.
Over on the side of good, Dominique Wightman was full of saucy, swarthy swagger as Prince Didcot – travelling from his ‘great towers in the south’ in the faithful company of his trusty horse Sparky (a marvellously expressive, wordless performance by Jules Pottle). Sophie Grigson took on the gun-toting role of ‘Norman Hunter’, in an outfit that blended Groucho Marx with Chechen separatist and hints of both Jack Hargreaves and Professor Robert Winstone, to great comic effect. You had to be there…
And meanwhile, the all-seeing mirror (a wonderfully adenoidal and sneering turn by Mike Meldrum) reflected on all before it and the expertly drilled gargoyle chorus switched seamlessly between dance, song and being the hardest-working human scenery in showbusiness. Pillars of the community in every sense.
All this was backed by some skilful accompaniment from the musical quintet led by musical director Rachael Claridge, who moved from Christmas melodies, to TV themes, to showtunes, to chamber music and back to more Michael Jackson and other pop favourites with bright ease. At times, the divide between the performers and audience disappeared entirely, with the action moving out into the hall and converging noisily from all directions.
And then there were the children – really the highlight of the whole show. The superbly dressed young ‘woodland animals’ sprung from below stage to perform their group numbers with real authority and verve. Ellie and Lucy doubled up as ice sprites and very effective dancing blades of grass. And the award for ensemble playing goes to the (ever increasing) family of bunnies made up of Megan, Jozie, Nekisa, Aoife, Alicia and Emilie. They cracked their jokes, wiggled their floppy ears, shook their bobtails and congratulated their brave, heard-but-never-seen mum, each time a new baby rabbit joined the troupe.
As pointed out in the (very professional) programme: the real test of a pantomime is the level of ‘behind you!’ audience reaction and participation. And The Cumnor Players scored highly on this too, with a cracking, standing crowd finale of ‘Let it snow’ that pitched males against females, but united everyone with some early festive spirit. Talking of which, the mulled wine (kindly donated by the Bear and Ragged Staff) and refreshments were excellent too!
If there’s anyone out there who thinks that putting on a show like this and coordinating so many people and resources is easy, a glance at producer Shannon Stephen’s team list in the programme, or a visit to www.cumnorplayers.org.uk proves otherwise. On top of all the cast, performers, technicians and specialists already mentioned was an army of at least 60 other, largely unseen and dedicated people who made it happen. And of course, it would all be impossible without the generosity of local company sponsors and advertisers – a host too numerous to mention.
Most importantly, the pantomime brought the people of Cumnor together for four, magical nights and raised much-needed funds to support the village school and the children’s hospice at Helen and Douglas House.
Congratulations to everyone involved – you truly are the fairest of us all.