Sleeping Trees have been impressively producing panto at Battersea Arts Centre for several years. In the context of national austerity, however, this year’s show feels like it has fallen victim to cutbacks. It’s cheap and cheerful, to the point of becoming rather insubstantial, the main payoff being loud and easy laughs. ‘But it’s a panto!’ I hear you yell. Expectations perhaps aren’t high for this genre of work, but maybe it’s because Sleeping Trees usually do so much better that Little Red Robin Hood is rather disappointing.
The device surrounding the story is that the forty strong cast has failed to show and headlining superstar, Cher, is waylaid by a helicopter incident. It’s up to theatre ushers Simone Cornelius and Miya James, along with friendly delivery driver Sam Rix to undertake the whole event. They’re a likeable and talented cast, bringing lots of energy and hard work to the stage. They immediately make the audience feel welcomed; encouraging and receiving lots of interaction, which the children enjoy with volume. But does that response alone make it a satisfactory show?
The set is pretty, nicely painted to look bright and Christmassy, but it adds little more than that. The script then settles at a ‘Tesco budget range’ level for easy, unsophisticated laughs. I get that Sleeping Trees like their work to play on naffness and being comically rubbish, but that’s usually complemented with a precision narrative, spiced with acutely funny one-liners and absurdities, rather than bum jokes. This script over-relies on repetition of the same old ‘oh no he isn’t’ format, which might make the audience scream (to the point of needing ear defenders!), but doesn’t bring much in the way of imagination or Christmas magic to the stage. By the second half that joke was predictable and pretty much done to death.
Playing forty characters (even if mostly gestured at) feeds in to an overcomplicated storyline. The many character changes aren’t adequately delineated or indeed ridiculous enough to be particularly funny, so the narrative gets confusing with no real payback. The slight costumes are clearly selected for the required quick changes and character references, but they smack somewhat of ‘school play’. Towards the end the cast were clearly having trouble with some elements, which is funny to an extent – a risk of live theatre – but when a beard is relied upon to signal the arrival of Santa it needs to be on the face, not round the neck, or Santa’s not there.
The play has strangely anachronistic choices for cultural reference, like Cher, Salt ‘n’ Pepa dance routines and off-brand songs suggestive of other popstars young children are unlikely to know. There are also slightly troubling questions about Red being neglected because her mum goes out to work (albeit as an outlaw), and a confusing proposal that “don’t have to do the right thing to do the right thing”, akin to Matilda’s “sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty” but more cumbersome.
This being said, for the best part of the show the young audience were shouting away and really enjoying their interactions. Sadly, however, they will going away calling each other “smelly poo-bum”. By the end they were pretty much burnt out on this, so the performance ended a little awkwardly, with no great sense of triumph for the heroes who save the day, and a forced bow.
There are certainly laughs to be had here, just not balanced out with any real seasonal sparkle. If this is the only theatre your children will see this Christmas, perhaps reflect if that’s all you want to offer them.
Written by: Ben Hales, James Dunnell-Smith, John Woodburn, Joshua George Smith
With additional script writing and editing from Alice Carter & Kerry Frampton
Directed by: Kerry Frampton
Musical Direction and Sound Design by: Ben Hales
Set and Costume Design by: Emily Bestow
Lighting Design by: Charly Dunford
Co-produced by Battersea Arts Centre, Sleeping Trees & Splendid Productions
Little Red Riding Hood plays at Battersea Arts Centre until 8 January. Further information and bookings can be found here.