There’s a pedigree in Marlowe Theater pantomime: boyband star Duncan James and Australian singer-songwriter Natalie Imbruglia are among those who have already graced its elegant wood-panelled stage. This year, the Canterbury stalwart welcomes TV presenter and former Strictly Come Dancing champion Ore Oduba and West End star Carrie Hope Fletcher for a show that unashamedly celebrates the full-blown camp fantasy of pantomime, eschewing the progressive twists seen in many similar shows these days.
The aesthetic of the show seems to have remained unchanged since the 80s. Cartoon sets of the turreted mansion or attic bedroom filled with skulls and cobwebs are lit up in saccharine pink, orange and bright yellow by designer Jack Weir. Even the costumes are consciously cheap and cheerful: the silky medieval robes and gleaming uniforms of the guards could have been lifted directly from The Princess Bride.
A blend of synthesizers, funky electric guitar and melodramatic sound effects by Phil Wilson creates a whimsical Super Mario-style soundscape. Songs including Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics and I’m a Believer by the Monkees are entered for singing brownie points.
The show breaks with the tradition of cheap pantomime in its use of special effects: everything from giant velociraptor puppets to flaming sword-spinners grace the stage. Hundreds of giggling children in the audience are a testament to their success.
Fletcher is excellent in his pantomime debut as the wicked fairy Carrie-bosse, evidently enjoying himself as he cackles confidently onstage. Ben Roddy is also a brilliantly flirtatious dame, Old Nelly, always with a gag on hand to iron out any technical snags that may have arisen during the press preview.
The 37-year-old Oduba, however, portrays a rather elderly Prince Michael, and both he and Princess Aurora (Ellie Kingdon) fade into the background when surrounded by such energetic supporting players. A stronger center pair would help project the warm, beating heart this show deserves and keep things from somewhat fiddling towards the end.
The real charm of this panto, however, is its comedy. Ventriloquist Max Fulham, as dimwitted Jangles, adds a slightly off-beat angle that probably isn’t in many other pantos this season. More predictably, Paul Hendy’s screenplay is chock full of puns: they may be a bit cringeworthy at first, but you grow attached to them as you get used to the universe of the show.
It all adds up to another skillfully produced and comforting Marlowe Theater panto. It may not go anywhere unusual or unexpected, but perhaps it’s desirable after two holiday seasons disrupted by the pandemic.
Until January 8th. Tickets: 01227 787787; www.marlowetheatre.com