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Reviews / Do I love panto now? You can shout ‘Oh yes you do!’

The Grand Vizier of Wakhah and one of his thieves intimidate Ali Baba. All photos: Austin Taylor Photography

WITH enormous reluctance this year, I grew a new fondness for pantomime, writes Helen Kerr.

Every time I’ve said in the past “I don’t like panto!” then some bright spark shouts back: “oh yes you do!” But I have remained staunch in my position that – oh no, I really don’t.

So honestly, when I was asked to review the pantomime for this year, I was filled with that excitement of watching live amateur theatre (which I love) and the dread of watching live amateur pantomime (which I don’t). Where am I going, you ask? Well, stick with me because I’m a reviewer who is difficult to impress with this genre of theatre…

This year’s offering was Mandy Phillips’ Ali Baba an’ Twartree Thieves for Islesburgh Drama Group – their 33rd pantomime and first since Covid restrictions sentenced theatre to the dark.

Directed and produced by Morag Mouat, what a fantastically funny offering it was too. Scattered with plenty of cheesy humour, local humour, groan-inwards humour and a good dose of adult humour, this year’s panto had some genuinely hilarious moments.

Gene Genie appears from the magic lamp.

One show stealer was David Smith as the classic pantomime dameRhum Baba. Perfectly cast and played, Smith delivered line after line of quintessential panto puns – complete with startling knickers and hair that would put Marge Simpson to shame!

Another hilarious addition was the wonderfully coordinated song If I Were Not in Pantomime where cast members joined one by one to sing the song, imagine a different life and act out a series of short actions to accompany their potential profession. It will be near impossible to fully express the spectacle in words, but needless to say the actions, the songs and the pantomime humour gave everyone who was there a good laugh.

This year’s lead – Ali Baba himself – was played by Nicola Fleck. For me, she is one to watch in amateur theatre. She has produced an array of impressive performances over the last few years and this production cemented her as a versatile and competent actor.

Ali Baba and Sheherezade seek guidance from Fairy Flitter Flatter

And of course, no panto is complete without the archetypal heroine – Amber Thomson – and the dastardly villains led by the Grand Vizier – Andy Long. Thomson’s growth in theatre is becoming increasingly apparent and is strengthened by her stunning singing voice. I did feel that she played Sheherazde a little tongue in cheek which was perfect in making her a worthy heroine – and a feisty one!

Vizier’s three sidekicks – the twartree thieves themselves – were panto gold. Stephenie Georgia, Shannon Williamson and Donna-Marie Leask were fantastic in their completely over the top, slapstick characterisation of the thieves.

As Awanta Shower, Awanta Pee and Awanta Saasermaet Roll, the three were facially brilliant! They expressed the classic inept incompetence of the theatre villain as they endeavoured to fox and outsmart the other characters (remember Harry and Marv from Home Alone Christmases past?!). They did, of course, fail in their attempts to plunder the wealth from and overthrow the Sultan but provided plenty of humour on the way.

Fairy Flitter Flatter helps Walter on their narrator role

Then there’s the actual bit of panto I have always enjoyed the least – the audience participation. I remember taking my children (then three and four) to see their first pantomime during our first Christmas in Shetland. Back when The Garrison was also a cinema venue, I had carefully made sure that my two pre-schoolers were quiet during films to make sure they didn’t ruin it for other viewers.

You can imagine their surprise when during the panto at the same venue, not only was shouting out loud acceptable, it was even encouraged! My son spent a good bit of time turning around trying to get everyone to shush a little before giving up and joining in, insisting that there was in fact someone behind someone else on stage!

I can’t explain why this grates on me. So you can imagine my surprise when – without realising – I was singing along with Bob the Camel that we shouldn’t worry about a thing – because every little thing is gonna be all right!

I must confess, when Bob first came on I was a little perplexed as to what he was supposed to be…tie dyed shirt, razzle dazzle trousers, and two knitted humps confused me no end. I whispered to my (now 17-year0old) daughter “what is he supposed to be?” She looked at me – like only teenagers can – and said “erm, he’s a camel!” Of course! She got it. And then I did. And then every time Bob strolled off, I sang too!

But all the best songs, funniest faces, knitted humps and oversized knickers mean nothing without a solid backstage team. Seamless transitions, carefully placed props implying time and place and wonderful pyrotechnics added to the show’s success. Costumes were fabulous, lighting and set changes created atmosphere and a witty, fast paced dialogue brought it altogether.

The cast and crew of Islesburgh Drama Group’s 33rd pantomime Ali Baba an’ Twartree Thieves

Which leads me to mention – were you there? Did you know that almost 12 per cent of the Shetland population were ticket holders? Youth groups and clubs had block bookings, families brought their grandparents and children…in fact it was such a hot ticket it sold out in a matter of hours.

Do I love panto now?
You can shout “Oh yes you do!”
I don’t know that I love panto per se.

But I did love that frosty night in December, seeing friends, colleagues and local talented individuals on and off stage making a community laugh and sing. I love the camaraderie and I love the promotion of theatre in all its forms.

Islesburgh Drama Group – ‘til next time. I hope you ask, “will you review our panto?” Because the answer will be a resounding “oh yes I will!”

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