Panto Review: Billy The Kid – A Panto Western

Ye-haw! The cast of 'Billy the Kid - A Panto Western'. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Ye-haw! The cast of ‘Billy the Kid – A Panto Western’. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

Brimming with a side-splitting and unimaginable originality, Charles Court Opera’s brave campaign to blend the traditional with the different sets a staggering panto standard.

Overview

Billy The Kid is not the Wild West outlaw of legend, but a literal kid. And by kid, I mean goat. Under the companionship of Bukaroo Dan, who’s struggling to keep his ailing ranch afloat, this tripple “Best In Show” winning goat has attracted the attention of cockney snake oil salesman, Mumford. Mumford wants Billy to stuff as a prime and lucrative piece of taxidermy. To achieve this, he posts a fake eviction notice on the stead to get his hands on Billy’s hide. However, in a last ditch effort to save the farm, Buckaroo Dan and a motley crew of friends go on an adventure to find the legendary treasure of Riding Bareback.

(left to right) Amy J Payne, John Savournin, Bruce Graham, Matthew Kellett, and Joanna Marie Skillet. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

(left to right) Amy J Payne, John Savournin, Bruce Graham, Matthew Kellett, and Joanna Marie Skillet. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Writing

John Savournin has been penning original pantos for the Charles Court Opera for many years now to great acclaim, earning pride and place as one of the UK’s top 10 pantos. Whilst the stories might not be “traditional” fairy stories, it’s still very much traditional panto with all the elements there. Whilst the narrative is a tad unfamiliar, it still follows the expected ups and downs of a panto story without deviating one bit, and all the usual trimmings are there too.

Working with Musical Director David Eaton in Billy The Kid – A Panto Western’s creation, they tick all the panto boxes. But what they in their collaboration is an incredible imagination and comic ingenuity. They reworks songs with alternative lyrics, or inserts them in as is to create moment of bellowing irony, with devastating wit. We’ve got everything from Rimsky Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumble Bee” to Spring Harvest hymnals here, all bursting with tight jokes and punchlines. And it’s not just the musical numbers that bristle with hilarious genius either. There’s pop culture references agogo, plenty of shocking innuendo, and moments that just take you by complete surprise causing prolonged joyous torture to your already aching sides. The scene with the spirit coyotes (and I shan’t give any more away than that) absolutely broke me to the point I couldn’t breath. Likewise, the Ghost scene (not to be confused with the scene with a ghost) was gloriously too much to handle.

The key to the success here is that not only have Savournin and Eaton created a sound, solid, and superlative panto, is that it’s also a fantastic piece of comic farce: the belly-aching cherry on a rich gigglesome cake. If you stripped away the panto elements, it would still make you laugh out loud with incredible ease and would fare effortlessly as a piece of farce.

There are things missing in the sense that there’s no chase scene or an “it’s behind you moment”. But this doesn’t take anything away or make it any less a paradigm of panto. They’re not needed here, and therefore not forced into it for the sake of it, and whilst it might be a shame that such loved skits are absent, Savournin and Eaton keep the panto slick and effortless.

The only criticism I can offer is that it seems a little unsure of where to pitch itself. Whilst it’s certainly a hoot for adults, with so many references to things that weren’t around when most children of panto-going age weren’t born, it leaves a room for things to go over their heads despite the standard frolics, possibly risking their interest.

But over all, this is a youth serum better than anything Olay can concoct. Watching it, I felt twenty years younger, recapturing a distant childhood and making me lose all inhibitions to the point I got told to “calm down” by a fellow critic! But if this isn’t the measure of a successful panto, then I don’t know what is. By this test Billy The Kid – A Panto Western passes this test with flying colours.

Direction & Production

William Fricker’s set design is an astonishing feat of slick professionalism, and not just for a fringe venue. It’s Wild West Vaudeville veneer is incredibly colourful and impressive, but also brims with little details, such as the shadow puppet theatre-esque cyclorama, capturing the same sense of colourful variety as the show. Nic Holdridge’s lighting also embraces this effervescent sense of fun, especially with his green lighting and flashing strobe for the whenever the villain is saying his piece, adding more to an already pristine show. In fact, the entire production crew, from actor, set designers, and musicians bring and enhance each other’s contributions.

There are also fantastic moments of choreography from Savournin’s hand, bringing a sense of West End flare to this comparatively humble venue. It’s as fast paced and as high octane as the action and gags, giving the show a rapturous momentum.

Aright Jeremy hunt! Bruce Graham as villain Mumford. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Aright Jeremy hunt! Bruce Graham as villain Mumford. Photograph: Courtesy of Bill Knight.

Cast

All the cast, despite being established and professional opera singers, embrace the panto style and energy with grace and gusto. Particularly, Bruce Graham is an excellent villain, tripping through his rhyming couplets and hackneyed rhyming slang with grisly delight, making him an adversary worthy of every boo and hiss thrown at him.

However, it’s Savournin, as not one dame but two, who steals the show. He’s a physical comic performer of astonishing ability. As well as employing plenty of kitsch, camp, and knowing, it’s his little physical nuances, such as a single facial expression, that can make the audience guffaw with laughter alongside the groaners and the tongue-in-cheek.

Verdict

Quite possibly the best panto in London, maintaining it’s well deserved kudos as well as continuing to set a dizzying standard for it’s competitors. A monstrously funny unholy hybrid of the traditional and the original. If you happen to already have a ticket to their nearly sold out run, treasure it with your life! Otherwise, be prepared to beg like you’ve never begged before for a seat to this seasonal humdinger.

[youtube http://youtu.be/H7mfpOYR-BI]

Billy the Kid – A Panto Western plays at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, London, N1 3DT, until 10 January 2014. Tickets are £21 (concessions available). To book, visit www.rosemarybranch.co.uk.

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