Friday, December 08, 2023

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – pantomime on a grand scale with some signs of evolution (Grand Opera House until Sunday 14 January)

With a big auditorium, advance ticket sales that must be the envy of other venues, and 12 shows a week, the finances are there to throw the kitchen sink at Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in Belfast’s Grand Opera House. You won’t find a Christmas show with a larger cast, with more glitter, with as impressive a street dance troupe, or with as spectacular a pre-interval stunt.

There’s a lot to like with Snow White (played by Aisling Sharkey) fighting off the evil Queen for the eye of a prince. Local performers Conor Headley and Jolene O’Hara are back for a second year and excel as Prince Connal of Coleraine and Queen Dragonella, though Headley’s solo before the close of the first act is somewhat eclipsed by the other performer who rides out over the heads of the front rows (only possible with perfect lighting and stagecraft to pull off the illusion). O’Hara revels in the wickedness of her role as the baddie and her ultimate dispatch from the story is accompanied by a trademark soprano trill.

As has been the case for 33 seasons, top billing goes to panto dame May McFettridge (John Linehan) with the most elaborate frocks. This year he stars as May of the Mirror, in charge of proclaiming who in the land is truly the fairest of them all. Funny man Paddy Jenkins keeps May company while even funnier comedian Phil Walker gets by far the most generous slice of time on stage telling jokes and rapping as the Queen’s court jester Muddles.

Many in the big cast are spread thin. Flawless came to national attention when they reached the final of Britain’s Got Talent back in 2009. Their style of street dancing is energetic, acrobatic, and while they only get to performance two numbers and take part in a skit with the resident comedian, they make a big impression, albeit as a variety act shoehorned into the plot. (The other half of the troupe are performing in the Edinburgh pantomime.)

Also woefully underused are ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (led by Belfast-based Scott English playing Prof) who appear in the show’s title but get very little time on stage. Their role as banished former palace protectors of Snow White allows them to offer her shelter. But the seven actors have little meaningful contact with the majority of the rest of the cast and I’d love to see an updated story arc that properly integrated them into the main narrative. Otherwise, I worry* that there’s an implicit tokenism and powerlessness in the portrayal of dwarfism. (PS: Some of the seven might make great understudies for the rest of the cast.) *I’m conscious I’m worrying out loud in public about something that really requires a quiet conversation to listen to those directly involved. I’ve a month to try to make that happen …

Not every pantomime convention makes it into this year’s offering at the Grand Opera House. There’s less of the “he’s behind you” audience responses. There has been some tinkering with the traditional Brothers Grimm/Disney plot in the second act poison apple scene. The use of double entendre now relies less on sexual innuendo, and scatological humour and fart gags are to the fore. It’s great to watch parents turn to each other and exchange raised eyebrows and smirks over the heads of their young children. (I’d love to hear the conversations in cars on the way home with kids repeating the Shih Tzu joke!)

While people in the boxes are no longer scolded for being posh, the audience in the front rows are ridiculed – though some of the ad libs at the performance I attended sailed uncomfortably close to the line of 2023 sensibilities. It would be fascinating to see how the Belfast Snow White show compares and contrasts with the other three versions running in Darlington, Glasgow and Southampton. (Crossroads Pantomimes have productions running in 24 cities across the UK this season.)

The audience enjoy the spectacle. Theatrically, the final poetic payoff to the pantomime story was somewhat fluffed at my performance and the curtain came down all too quickly after the final bows without another number or a megamix to send us out into the cold Belfast night with a proper song ringing in our ears.

Pantomime is always changing. Hopefully the artform is keeping ahead of audience expectations. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is an ambitious production, technically complex and full of strong performances. It’s in the minor nuances and coping with the scale of the show that improvements could be made. Directed and choreographed by Jonny Bowles, performances continue until Sunday 14 January.

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