As has been the tradition for the past few years, on Thursday I went to see the Eastbourne pantomime in the final week of its run, followed straight afterwards by the crew's spoof version. This year's show was Robin Hood, an unusual choice, and all the better for it. Apart from the first panto I worked on in 1992 (Robinson Crusoe), it's felt like a never-ending cycle of the three favourites - Aladdin, Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella, so it was nice to see something more original, especially written for Eastbourne.
Since the town started producing its own pantomimes a few years ago, a distinct culture has been fostered around the festive production that is largely to do with the familiar faces that keeping popping up. Regulars such as Martyn Knight, Carl Patrick and David Alder have built up a warm rapport with the local audience over the years, making for an intimate, conspiratorial atmosphere. This year's token TV celeb was Eastenders' John Altman, aka 'Nasty' Nick Cotton.
Pantomime is by its nature formulaic. One expects and looks forward to the essential components: the 'he's behind you' scene, the slapstick chase, the soppy romantic bit, the duel, the songsheet, the transformation - all tied up with a good dose of bawdy humour and a sprinkling of innuendo for the grown ups.
I can remember as a chid being genuinely terrified by the panto villain, with his or her over the top make up and ominous green lighting, and if anything was missing from this year's panto, it was the lack of a convincing baddie. Karen Mann did an admirable job in the supporting role as Nottingham's mother, but the main man himself was more grumpy than menacing.
Tracey Penn was a textbook principle boy in the title role of Robin, belting out her numbers in a crowd-pleasing West End style. Some of the cast's other best singers, including David Alder and Nicholas Colicos, were disappointingly under-ultilised, but the choice of music was generally pleasing. I especially enjoyed Carl Patrick's rendition of The Lazy Song - a laid back reggae tune, nicely choreographed, that broke up the usual ballad/rock/ballad selection.
Although we all know it's a filler to allow the big finale set change to happen, I thought this year's songsheet scene was a little uninspiring. As always, the kids that got up on stage were the funniest part of this section. One of the boys, when asked who his favourite character was, replied in earnest "Peter Pan", which greatly tickled the cast and audience.
Overall it was an excellent production with plenty of laughs, that rounded off my festive season perfectly. The crew's Cod version - an institution that has grown from year to year - was, as ever, hysterical. Here are some little snippets to give you a flavour - though of course I appreciate it is funnier if you know the people involved:
Next year's Christmas production is to be Sleeping Beauty, another less conventional choice that I hope will bring opportunities for more experimental elements. I would love to see some other more obscure fairy tales given the Eastbourne panto treatment in future years, too. If they wanted to be really progressive, the producers could even let the town vote on what the 2013 show should be.