Jan 252008

There’s a Fry and Laurie sketch that makes fun of people who write in letters to English newspapers. Actually, there’s more than one, as it’s apparently deep fodder to mine for humor. I can see why, given this letter to the editor regarding Stephen Fry‘s own Cinderella pantomime, which employed the following withering condemnation of it:

It was described as full of filth and smut in reviews I read in five different national newspapers.

Yes, it did get some poor reviews for being a bit on the risqué side, but nowhere do I remember reading that it was “full of filth and smut.” Nor do I remember seeing any of said filth and smut at the performance I attended. Nor indeed would this “Mr. Callaghan of Seaforth” have either, had he bothered to actually see the play he so freely and undeservedly criticized.

I do however understand some of the objections raised by reviewers. The step-“sisters” were played by men in purposefully crude drag, and I admit to not particularly enjoying their scenes. My tolerance for burlesque humor tended to be exhausted before they were (the jokes seemed too easy), but I think my real trouble was that I found one of the actors grating. It was like he had all the abrasiveness of Harvey Fierstein without any of his mitigating soulfulness.

But as for the accusations that the play was too “gay” — I think its “gayness” gave the play some of its charm. We all know the story of Cinderella — there was therefore a limit to what Stephen Fry could do vis a vis plot — so by weaving in a parallel romance, albeit of a type not often told in children’s fairy tales, it made the story more romantic (and, indeed, humorous) than it would have been on its own.

Otherwise I don’t know what people could have expected. As a well-known story and as a pantomime, any playwright would have been fairly hamstrung right out of the gate by the various elements that necessarily had to be included. But the play still bore signs of Stephen Fry’s creativity (in fact, a joke was made referencing that very thing). Having never seen any English pantomimes before I can’t tell what part of it was his invention, or whether this pantomime might have been any better or worse than any another, but I certainly found it enjoyable in and of itself. As clearly did the audience.

Pantomimes, for the uninitiated, are plays that the English enjoy around the Christmas season. They tend to involve performances of well-known happy-ever-ending-type tales, and they tend to be oriented for children. This production, performed at London’s Old Vic theater, was aimed a bit more for grown-ups, but children were still in attendance and brought up onstage as part of the performance. This, too, is a typical characteristic of an English pantomime, and there are many English actors whose first ever memories of performing involve being called to stand on the stage during one as a child.

The typical pantomime also inherently tends to involve aspects of farce in its humor, which lends itself to another pantomime feature: audience participation. Of course this play was going to elicit the requisite audience shouts of, “Behind you!” and, “Oh no he didn’t, oh yes he did!” banter. That these instances could still appear fresh and humorous when they occurred, even though they were so clearly expected, is to the play’s credit.

The play also closed with a sing-along, which from what I understand is also typical. And like a lot of Stephen Fry’s humor, it embraced absurdity. For me it provided its own level of entertainment, watching a theater-full of otherwise staid Englishpeople belt out the words to “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” while alternately standing and sitting every time there was an instance of the letter “B”…

Perhaps I give too much away in mentioning that part, but the play has just closed for the season. Still, perhaps it will be revived for another year. Certainly as a foreigner it is well-worth seeing, both as an entertaining evening of English culture as well as a solid production on its own. Particularly if they once again employ sets so striking and clever (did you know you could do a nude shower scene on a stage in front of a family audience?), and a mustachioed Sandy Toksvig, who was absolutely perfectly cast as the narrator.

 Posted by at 6:08 pm

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