Babes in the Wood – Churchill Theatre

Written by John Somerville

Directed and Choreographed by Mandy Black

Musical Direction by Barrie Simcock

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Now this is a proper pantomime.

There is an undoubtable poignancy with the Edinburgh People’s Theatre’s return to the stage following their hibernation over lockdown periods. Babes in the Wood, opening last week at the Churchill Theatre, is a fitting piece for the company’s re-emergence, dedicated to the memory of its writer, John Somerville, who passed in 2021. And there’s a spark in each performer which recognises the memory living on through the group: one they should all be proud of.

All crossroads lead back to the Woods. Whether it’s the stolen glances of love between Peter and Morag as they think of a way to be happy with one another; or how Fairy Goodheart is passing on her magic to Fairy Honeydew. Knee slaps, sing alongs, dames, villains, and even sweets – yes, health and safety be damned, Babes in the Woods is the first pantomime this year to hand out the goods.

Even the Baron and Baroness of Hardup Hall are feeling the pinch this year as they devise a way to extract the last morsels of money they can with a rather ominous plan involving their niece and nephew’s inheritance. And tasked with looking after Babes Kirsty and Callum is Nurse Isla White, with unintentional aid from Jack, local handyman, groundskeeper, and whatever else the Hardups require.

Rippled with music courtesy of musical director Barrie Simcock, with live keyboard (by Simcock) and drums for both comedic and percussive impact, Babes in the Wood mingles a few pop classics with some original medleys. It provides an overall pleasing mix of musical mashups, with Lynsey Spence’s Morag and Carol Byrce’s Peter leading the charge with splendid vocals, wonderful storytelling, and chipper audience chatter.

Championing Somerville’s humour best is none other than our Panto dame for this evening, Derek Ward, as deliciously vicious as one may expect – Ward possesses enough canny knowhow of where to draw the line with audience interaction and maintain stage control. This is not an out-of-control Pantomime which thrives on chaos or forced-errors, instead has a tried and tested method and adoration for performance. It’s thanks to Black’s ability to stage a cast of twenty-six without running into issues of pacing and space that Babes in the Woods works out as well as it does.

And while the Chorus make up a large portion of palace staff and villagers, there’s also a delightfully inventive streak of creativity as they perform Haunted Mansion-esque Portraits, UV Operators, and the school’s pupils and caretakers. And with all these extra bodies – you’d expect a nightmare of set design. Quite the opposite.

While Babes in the Wood may not win awards for elaborate design, the magic of the storyteller supersedes this, with Andy Hope and Sally North’s stage management running a tight ship all things considered. It’s bright, effective, and seamless enough to switch between the enchanted woods and Hardup Hall with ease, utilising Robert Fuller’s sparkling and disco-tech lighting to provide cover and joy. And living every moment to the fullest are the Babes themselves, Jessica Howie and Kai Bruce, a pair of superbly talented young stars who share a panache of dancing skill with a strong sense of comic timing to keep up with the old-timers.

And just as it all seems a touch saccharine with the vivid colours and fairy-magic – a chill of Halloween makes one final appearance as act two opens with a demonstration of both Black’s choreography and the movement skills of the titular babes – dressed as a Mummy and a spooky-scary skeleton. It’s certainly a break from expectation, but a welcome one, as it allows Robert Fuller’s lighting to play around a little more, and the cast to play with a few stage tricks with floating bones, sock-puppets, and even a rousing rendition of Mahna Mahna.

But these skeletons and ghoulies aren’t the only despicable denizens at work. Dripping with smug malice, Lyzzie Dell and Ray Pattie bring a superiority which wouldn’t be a miss in the House of Lords. Malevolent, the pair never stretch into the sinisterness of the character – though Dell’s unprincipled delight at violence and cold-hearted delivery might suggest otherwise. They make for an effective foil against their daughters Nausea and Dyspepsia, played by Anne Mackenzie and Gemma Dutton with all the repulsive elation as a couple of school bullies on a free lesson.

And if you’ve ever asked yourself; how villains get their gigs, ask none other than Dombey and Son – rogues for hire in need of a job (and a wash). Where Pattie and Dell perform to the more expectant and encouraged boos and hisses, Graham Bell and Alistair Brown’s energy is infectious – and even the most ancient of puns somehow feels fresh coming from Bell’s delivery, bounced back by Brown’s exaggerated daftness.

Frequent flyers off the stage, the pair and the chorus make the most of the openness of the Church Hill space – Black’s direction opening the floor up to most of the cast to interact with the audience and broaden the dimensions of the Panto. It’s an excellent step into going beyond expectations and that extra mile, reinforcing just how passionate the team are about this form of theatre, a form which others give off a sense of reluctance towards.

But nothing here is forced – not even the gags. Somerville’s legacy remains within this production, which captures the purest essence of the Pantomime aesthetic and has one principle aim: entertainment. Babes in the Wood, under tight direction with a dedicated cast is a shining example of the humble joys a Pantomime can bring to all audiences.

Now This is a Proper Panto

Babes in the Woods runs at Church Hill Theatre until December 18th.

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Graham Bell

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