National Operatic & Dramatic Association London Region
Society : Argosy Players
Production : Humpty Dumpty
Date : 15th April 2022
Be inspired by amateur theatre Venue : Douay Martyrs School, Ickenham.
Report by : Tony Austin
Oddly enough I think I must start my report on the 23rd March when I walked into the much missed Winston Churchill (Theatre, as was, but then the Ruislip Vaccination Centre) to get my fourth jab and discovered not only that the Vaccination Centre was closing for ever the next day but also (from the ladies with the needles) that it had never managed to attract enough custom to make it a viable proposition! What a difference from the time two years before then, when not only our local societies but also others from further afield regularly filled the available seats for pantomimes and musicals. The Council had been praised for providing the NHS with the facility, but the absence of its stage had forced some societies to close and others, desperate to get back on stage, to explore all possible options.
And as I learned on the 15th April of a further closure for renovations, the blight still continues.
Used to welcoming huge parties of Rainbows, Brownies, Guides, Cubs and Scouts to the multiple performances over their January weekend at the Winston Churchill, the unknown territory of the Easter weekend (when most of that part of the audience were likely to be away on holiday, or at least queuing at Dover or Heathrow before going) and the local school hall with facilities not specified (but as used for the schools own theatrical performances during the winter could be assumed to be up to the mark) really involved a leap of faith, which with religious images displayed in the hall as well as the rather ecclesiastical echo from its mostly bare walls and pitched ceiling seemed appropriate. And the fact that there was neither a house curtain at the front of the stage nor a facility for tabs further back to enable scenery to be changed away from the view of the audience must have caused even more angst.
Undeterred, as befits a society paying tribute to their late scenery designer and maker (and so much more) Keith French, they presented their show without pretence so we saw the skill of their stage crew led by Keith Webb and probably including those who helped him in the construction and painting (Darrin Reeves, John Fahey, and Rene Bates but probably not specialist painter Tim Leman) in manoeuvring the tall sets of book flats which flanked the upstage entrance and our view of the low wall which seemed to be the edge of the dangerous world beyond pantoland. Brilliantly designed by Sue Munroe to be adaptable to any venue, to represent a wood and picnic area, a fantastically complicated imagining of the inside of a spider’s lair and two other rather less specific designs, the eight flats in pairs painted on both sides and hinged to open either way provided all the necessary backings for the convoluted plot, as well a being a delight to our eyes throughout the evening. Well done, all!
Similarly undeterred were the thirteen members of the cast young and much older pictured in the programme (and possibly one further even more juvenile member holding the stage alone and delighting us as a cuddly rabbit at the beginning of a new scene) who threw themselves into the mix-up of panto characters from many different stories (or none) in the script written specially for Argosy. I’m not sure that there have been Easter Pantomimes written before this, but the novelty of the basic idea of linking Humpty Dumpty with Easter Eggs was certainly worth egg-sploring and various characters normally seen in completely different pantos amused us with an egg-cellent series of puns.
I gather from the Director’s page in the extensive e-programme that rehearsals had not been without problems, with one change of cast occurring only a fortnight before, but I certainly couldn’t identify anyone in the cast who seemed short of rehearsal time. And leading the cast, and everything else about Argosy with unabating energy and enthusiasm, Chairman, Director, Producer and principal villain on stage Phil Gossan more than deserves the first mention as (briefly) Mr Wolf properly stage left and lit in green to represent evil. Some lovely threateningly evil rhyming couplets, later perhaps realising he was not in Red Riding Hood, he reappeared in his main role as Boris the Spider, scaring us with his extra flapping arms (or legs), although it seemed that Miss Muffet was made of sterner stuff. Able to raise boos from the audience with properly melodramatic face and gestures, and certainly the nastiest villain when we saw Humpty trapped in the web in his lair, he was nevertheless the perfect example of the pantomime baddy who was never actually going to frighten any children in the audience.
The younger element was well represented with several actors seen in previous pantos. Kara Henderson (who was 9 years old when she danced with the adult trained dancers in Treasure Island in 2019) made a lovely expressive Cat with her meows and sinuous movements and a fine Memories (unaccompanied) before becoming a witch for the Bad Guys number and showing the others just how it should be done. Annie Henderson, her young sister?, showed confidence and stage presence as a Woodland Creature, and we await her larger roles in future years. I don’t recall seeing Thaliyah Singh previously, but she showed a good understanding of stage work and put over her lines as the Mayor and was the smallest ever Giant. The contrast with Daniel St Romaine (aged17?) as the tallest ever Little Jack Horner must surely have been accidental. The role didn’t give him the chance to air his skill with accents as in his Scottish Policeman’s monologue in Swallows and Amazons in 2018 when he was only half as tall, but he probably had more time on stage and more lines than almost anyone else, all delivered with charm and nonchalance, even after the rather too long delayed planting of the custard pie (presumably aka Christmas Pie, though thankfully no plums), which left him with a face half covered with white gunge standing on stage and wiping bits away as they started slipping while taking part in a long dialogue scene, surely something to be avoided with a swift exit for a wash. Happily he survived and in Act 2 made a fine hiking partner for Miss Muffet as they searched for Humpty. And if I remember correctly that the Pie was delivered by his mother, I do hope they still remain friends.
Back to the adults. Carmel Bass as Fairy Nuff got the evening off to a fine start complaining about having to talk in rhyme and introducing some of the twists of the plot, and delighting in leading the cast in the clever reworking into Life is a Pantomime of the number from Cabaret. Theresa St Romaine made good comedy out of her short role as a waiter, dodging here and there as ideas changed, and seemed essential as a cleaner with a feather duster wiping (as I now realise) some of the gunge dropped from her son’s face. Michael Groves dashed on and off the stage as a Delivery Driver and later as a fine Wild Boar became the essential threat in the Ghostbusters sequence. Diverting to another panto, Phil Arnold, apart from his appearance as Abanaazar in the Bad Guys number, made a hit with his King in the Counting House, repetitive but properly varied and luckily without a blackbird, and when joined by David Hamilton Smith as Captain of the Guard the two of them gave a masterclass in timing and clarity with dialogue clearly enunciated and projected towards the audience.
James Baxter looked lovely as Dame Clara in what I believe is his first cross-dressing role, in outfits which could have been tailored for him, and projected a likeable higher-class but rather gentle personality, working hard with his companions throughout and making good contact with the audience. Perhaps the role was written so that it had to be played that way, but I missed the way I have seen other Dames in pantomime dominate everything on stage and the audience as well, and wonder whether a lower class and less sophisticated approach might have made the character more pantomimic.
And so to the leading couple who, oddly, were hardly together for most of the story. Connor Walker, another of Argosy’s youngsters from Swallows and Amazons who played Roger (age 7 or 8) in 2018 but by 2019 had risen to the age of 13, now possessing a fabulous singing voice as Humpty, displayed in virtually all the numbers in the show from the superbly reworked Hello Dolly number Put on Your Panto Clothes with Dame Clara, via I Will Get Back Up Again (with absolute confidence), less in evidence perhaps as Mr Wolf in Bad Guys, but exquisite in his Lonely solo. I don’t know if you intend to use your voice in Musical Theatre in the future, but if that might be so make sure you do your moves with similar confidence whether they are right or not; glances to see what others are doing show up much more than mistakes. And well done for getting through the very odd acting role: a king’s son besotted with Miss Muffet but afraid to say so and going on a journey to do something brave but being captured by a Spider instead. Thank goodness it was only invented as part of a pantomime.
Happily Miss Muffet, played by Elizabeth Venner an experienced young actress with a lovely soprano voice, had been rather more aware of the situation than Prince Humpty realised (even though they had shared the Spamalot number The Song that Goes Like This – a gorgeous duet in the first Act) and in the second Act decided to go on a rescue mission with great assistance throughout from Little Jack Horner and Dame Clara. And even more happily after the rescue her voice blended perfectly with his again in the glorious extended finale I Would Walk 500 Miles, as true love won the day, before there was a wholehearted reprise by all the Company to the approval of our satisfied audience.
Congratulations to David Axtell and his team of helpers for sourcing the widely varied costumes appropriate to the widely different characters and the period of the stories they came from, and to Michael Groves and Theresa St Romaine for making or sourcing the myriad props necessary to tell the story. LSL Lighting and Technical Services Ltd enhanced everything we saw, although the echoey hall with complete absence of hangings together with face mics not being placed near facial bones (as my evening companion told me) made it a virtually impossible task for their Sound engineer.