Like the Royal family, Morris dancing, and Jedward, pantomimes at Christmas constitute just one of the myriad of guilty pleasures that are part of the British tradition. If you want to see men flamboyantly dressed as women, girls pretending to be boys and fancying other girls, and thigh high leather boots – all in a family friendly setting – then pantomimes are your thing. Beauty and the Beast at Nottingham Playhouse is a pantomime that manages to hit some of the right notes, yet fails to fully exploit the creative possibilities offered by the genre.
Most importantly for a pantomime it does the job of entertaining the children, but if I remember correctly, fifteen years ago I went over to a friend’s house to check out his stick insect collection – in other words, children are easily pleased. So what’s in it for us? John Elkington as Madame Fifi is brilliantly camp, risqué and unpredictable; he gives us a performance that does justice to the character role of the pantomime dame. His acerbic one liners and impromptu exchanges with members of the audience keeps things animated, but he is the only thing of any real interest for those of us whose enjoyment of High School Musical could only ever be on an ironic level – everything else is just about as saccharine as a Troy and Gabriella ballad.
Christmas pantomimes are loved by families precisely for their unashamed cheesiness and garish production values, but merely because they are accepted for being formulaic performances does not mean that there can be no innovation within that tried and tested blueprint. In an age where Disney and Dreamworks movies now cater as much to adults as to their children, pantomimes will survive only if they can be witty, tongue in cheek and knowing, whilst captivating the young – and the young at heart. For these reasons Beauty & the Beast is an adequate pantomime, but not a great one.