This year’s Oxford Playhouse Pantomime is Beauty and the Beast, written and directed by Steve Marmion.

The atmosphere in the auditorium seemed a little flat at the start of the performance, but this soon changed after a couple of energetic songs.

The entire cast had incredible energy and enthusiasm, and looked to be really enjoying themselves throughout the performance. This enthusiasm was infectious and quickly spread to the audience, who were clearly enjoying the performance and were really buying into it.

It is rightly said that pantomime is one of the most gruelling jobs on the theatre stage, and if the cast can keep up the level they showed on our visit for the entire run up to January 12, then it will be truly impressive.

The cast, including the young ensemble performers, were superb, there was not a weak link among them. A few of them may be slightly familiar to avid TV viewers thanks to roles in programmes Call the Midwife, The Borgias, Endeavour, Upstart Crow, Casualty, The Bill and Dr Who, and movies including Nativity 2: Danger in the Manger, Interlude in Prague and Hugo. With a cast of this strength and depth, the Playhouse pantomime had no need for a big celebrity headline name to bring in the punters.

Oxford Mail:

The scenery was simple but effective, with some very nice effects, particularly the use of silhouettes, which were very cleverly used to tell the background story and to set the scene at the start of each half.

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Also impressive were the various depictions of the beast; from the giant hand reaching out on to the stage from the wings and the luminous red eyes left gleaming on the dark stage as the lights went down at the end of the first half (which our daughter said she found quite creepy, although she enjoyed it), through to the huge full-body costume used in the second half.

The cast all did a fantastic job, really inhabiting their roles, but special praise in particular should go to Adrianna Bertola (the Mayor and the fox) and Ricky Oakley (Brian the Orangutan).

Bertola’s performance was flawless throughout, and her performance in the musical number ‘What Does the Fox Say’ had an almost unbelievable amount of energy.

Having impressed for the last two years in the leading panto roles of Jack (Jack and the Beanstalk) and Dick (Dick Whittington) at the Playhouse, Ricky Oakley was back this year as Brian the Orangutan, and was once again on top form.

Oxford Mail:

Brian will not be a familiar character to those who have not seen this particular interpretation of the Beauty and the Beast story, but as well as being an integral character in the story itself, he also acted as narrator and provided the thread which hung the whole story together.

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He had some great comic lines and jokes, as well as plenty of physical comedy moments all of which were delivered with perfect timing and 100% commitment. He was also given plenty of opportunity to show off his fantastic singing voice, belting out some well-known songs cleverly adapted for this show.

The obligatory Panto Dame was on this occasion played by Philip Pellew, a late stand-in for the regular cast-member Paul Barnhill. The substitution, though, was for the most part seamless and Pellew did a sterling job.

Playing Dame Potts (Belle’s Mother turned into a teapot by the curse of Witch Kardashia), Pellew had the usual dizzying array of costume changes, plentiful jokes, and quickly built up a great rapport with the audience.

Oxford Mail:

It was noticeable this year that the Dame’s humour relied less upon innuendo than in previous years, and though previously the innuendos had never been inappropriate, the change this year was quite welcome and refreshing (and led to less awkward questions from children asking why the grown-ups were laughing when their younger, more innocent minds had picked up nothing funny in the previous line).

Dame Potts did, however, have a seemingly endless supply of cleverly written tea-related puns, none more impressive than when he reeled off a list of Shakespeare plays, all their titles twisted to relate to tea. The only criticism our daughter had of the Dame was that he needed to work on developing his throwing arm, as none of the sweets (in fairness not the most aerodynamic of projectiles) he hurled into the audience ever reached beyond about the fourth row, and even when he used a tennis racket with the stated aim of launching sweets up to the balcony, all his efforts fell short.

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There was nothing particularly innovative or ground-breaking in this adaption, but it was still hugely enjoyable, with lashings of the usual pantomime silliness, a little audience participation (booing, cheering, singing and clapping along), an on-stage game for two children (who had obviously been pre-nominated or chosen as there was no appeal for volunteers) and of course a couple of Dad’s brought on to the stage to participate in a song and dance routine.

Oxford Mail:

As soon as the cast members began to come into the audience you could see all the Dad’s shrinking in their seats, trying to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible, although the two selected on this occasion were excellent sports, threw themselves into the task and can rightly walk away with their heads held high having completely avoided embarrassing themselves. The script was deftly adapted to include some audience-pleasing references to local place names and fictional characters (as well as a bit of “Swindon bashing”).

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The programme was well-produced, with plenty of interesting information for children and grown-ups alike, and a good number of puzzles and activities for the children.

On sale in the foyer were the usual selection of (theatre-priced) confectionary, flashing and spinning things to entertain the children, although one nice addition this year were the plastic, sparkling flashing red roses (much less naff than they sound) which tied in beautifully with the story being told on stage.

Oxford Mail:

All in all, this was a very enjoyable show, with good script and staging, elevated to excellence by a very talented, energetic and enthusiastic cast. Despite being as always more appreciated by the grownup audience, there was plenty to engage the younger members; the highlights for our eight-year old daughter being the Fox singing ‘What does the fox say’, the giant Beast with red beaming eyes and the villain Witch Kardashia because she was funny, sarcastic and evil!

A fun way for all the family to escape the hustle and bustle of the Christmas shoppers outside and to spend a couple of hours losing themselves completely in ‘Panto Land’.