As it’s the run up to Christmas, pantos are saturating our stages. There are the traditional ones and plenty that give themselves another label in the hope of getting attention: boutique, adult and gay spring to mind. Then there are other shows that are close to panto in that they’re family friendly and/or based on fairytales, like Polka Theatre’s Beauty & the Beast. New musical Red Riding Hood, by the team that brought audiences the stage adaptation of The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Jake Brunger and Pippa Cleary, also falls into this category. The largely excellent, Disney-style songs are this production’s strongest feature, but unfortunately the cheap-looking set, and now-antiquated style of children’s theatre prevent this show from being a stand-out option this holiday season.
Nazarene Williams excels as Little Red. Clever and feisty, she’s a wonderfully pro-active character for young girls to identify with. Her charming sidekick William the Woodcutter (Matthew Jay-Ryan) is dopey and fun, but a good enabler and supports Red on her quest to save her family’s bakery. Matthew Barrow has more character as the wolf; his dad lacks energy in comparison. Mum Holly-Anna Lloyd is a strong singer, but she looks the same age as her daughter and the character lacks maturity. Patsy Blower completes the cast of five as the witty grandma. All of them are strong singers with that powerful, modern American Broadway tone that kids recognize from Disney films.
The book and design are a let down, though. Brunger’s writing is simplistic and not suitable for children in the upper years of primary school, and there are some unnecessary scenes that seem like they were written to add length rather than the main storyline. Three schools were there, and on several occasions the children got bored and started talking amongst themselves: a powerful indicator of this production’s issues. The story has a well-shaped structure and an interesting plot, but the dialogue isn’t far off that in Town Hall Cherubs, which is pitched to 2-5 year olds. This makes the actors perform in that exaggerated style of performance that used to be the signature of all children’s theatre, but many productions have now become much more sophisticated, even for very young children. The design looks great in dim light and the patchwork tree leaves are a particularly lovely idea, but with the lights up, they look like cheap, enlarged photocopies and the flats themselves are flimsy. The birds in the forest are origami paper cranes that the actors fly around, but there is no movement within the birds themselves. The paper rabbit on a stick slid across the floor has the same disappointing lack of impact. Grandma’s pet parrot, an actual puppet, is a much better use of puppetry. There are obvious budget constraints here, but a simpler approach may have been more effective rather than trying to make the set look grand but not having the materials available to do so.
The songs are excellent though, and there are plenty of them. From moving duets to powerful solos and whole-cast numbers, they pull back the attention every time. There are some trite lyrics here and there, but Pippa Cleary’s music is great. The show isn’t beyond rescue, though. With some re-writes and additional invention (like William’s wonderful magic book) to make it more distinctive and develop the characters, this could be an excellent example of modern children’s theatre.
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