For me, enjoying a Watlington Players pantomime is fast becoming an unmissable New Year's tradition. Just like turkey sandwiches and failed New Year's Resolutions, January doesn't feel quite right without a trip to Watlington Village Hall for the Players' annual pantomime.
This year the Players took a risk by performing an unconventional script: Frankenstein The Pantomime.
The story revolves around Frank N. Stein, a lowly taverna worker, who is transformed into monster in order to save his friend Heidi from the clutches of evil vampires. With help from a handsome prince, a dame, a mad scientist, a dog, and hordes of naughty school girls, Frankie is on a mission to save Heidi from Dracula and his gruesome Granny. But can they rescue her before it's too late?
As you can probably guess from that synopsis, the story is gloriously silly but an awful lot of fun. The script is laden with wonderfully terrible jokes and great visual gags, which leave the audience giggling and groaning with pleasing regularity. All the usual pantomime tropes are here, including men dressed as women, plenty of singing and, of course, a happy ending!
Director Kate Carpenter does a marvellous job, ensuring that the large cast have plenty to do and that every character is fully realised. Each role is played with good humour and conviction – there are no bit parts here – and the quality of the acting across all performances is testament to the strength of the whole ensemble.
Matthew Kerslake is engaging and likeable as Frank N. Stein, while Eleanor Cullum-Hanshaw and Ben Robinson are both excellent as star-crossed lovers Heidi and Prince Ludwig. Hugh Pearce makes a fantastic Buckles, and Mike Cooke and Rachel Marshall relish their roles as evil vampires Dracula and Granula.
In a departure from her usual 'damsel in distress' roles, Megan Abbott plays Bridget, a vacuous teenager intent on capturing the Prince's affections, and it seems that being a baddie quite suits her! Elsewhere Laura Anderson, Lucy Beeton, Kate Oldfield, Katy Beeton, Ellie Fradley, Monica Aubrey-Jones, Jane Pearce, Sophie Sharp and Georgia Smith are brilliant as the group of rowdy school girls, all of whom could give St Trinian's a run for their money.
Chip Carpenter and Eileen Haynes are fantastic as the suitably disreputable owners of the taverna, Herr and Frau Pumpernickel. Leslie Judd plays dame with aplomb as schoolmistress Miss Nelly, the perfect foil for the outlandish and hilarious Professor Crackpot, played by Peter Fiddling. (Peter's German accent is worth the ticket price alone!)
Emma Aubrey-Jones, Cerys Brooks, Saffron Krill and Becky Read are all wonderful as Dracula's dancing bats, and where would we be without the great supporting chorus of Steve Brooks, Karen Girdwood, Sandra Johnson, William Johnson, Gemma Laing, Su Read, Daniel Wagg and Irene Whitehouse?
In terms of criticisms, there are a few scenes in which the dialogue might be tightened up, to aid the flow of the story. Similarly, the ambitious shadow puppetry of the surgery scene is very funny, but may benefit from a few cuts to help with pacing.
However, these small grumblings do little to change the fact that this is an excellent show, and a fine night out. Once again, the Watlington Players have created a fantastic pantomime that's fun for all the family.
I've already booked my tickets for next year!