Review by Sam Waite
After taking a bookstore queue by storm with a rapid-fire summary of the existing Harry Potter books in the mid-2000s, Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner would soon become major players in family entertainment. With productions of Potted Potter still popping up post-pandemic, it should come as no surprise that their twelve-year strong Potted Panto is making a return to the West End. Over the course of 70-or-so minutes, perpetual straight-man Jeff and cartoonish sidekick Dan set out to briefly tell the stories of the most notable pantomimes.
A funny opening bit has Jeff keeping to more classic fare while Dan argues for the inclusion of, among others, A Christmas Carol. So oft-referenced is his want to tell this story that there’s no surprise when he shoe-horns it in, completely derailing Jeff’s telling of Aladdin in the process. What could seem like deliberate or malicious mess-ups on Dan’s part benefit greatly from the pair’s easy, genuine chemistry – their bond is clearly strong after many years together, even if some of their comedy is showing signs of age.
Starting the chorus of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” before trailing off into a high-pitched tangent, Dan comments on how long they’ve been doing this and how you’d think their song choices might have come up to date in that time. Here the writer-performer duo falls into a precarious pitfall of parody – acknowledging your weaknesses and poking fun at them before anyone else can doesn’t mean they cease to exist. Elsewhere Dan’s Prince Charming refusing to kiss two separate sleeping princesses on grounds of consent feels at odds with the willingness to laugh at the very idea of a male-presenting audience member being a beautiful princess. Yes, gender-bending is a longstanding part of the pantomime tradition, but it seems odd to try and be progressive (albeit with a now-overplayed joke) in the same story.
More successful and consistently enjoyable is the use of call-and-response and audience participation. During these moments, the set-up of Dan being unfamiliar with the workings of pantos and being in awe at the audience knowing what to say is genuinely very funny. When the crowd is called upon to stand up and act out a dangerous carriage ride, his unconventional storytelling and lack of awareness for the “proper” way to do things had everyone laughing – even if only at each other. Dan and Jeff were full on enthusiasm even at 11am and keep up their energy throughout. Many times they had the younger members of the audience in fits of laughter at their odd-couple antics, even while keeping up the guise of teaching the children about panto traditions.
Director Richard Hurst and set designer Simon Scullion use their borrowed stage (the marquee show at the Apollo is the new Derren Brown piece) to solid effect, evoking the idea of two friends throwing together a show to explain classic tales to whoever they manage to have stop and listen. A handful of red curtain’s build into the misshapen home-front set allow for them to introduce their rapid-fire characters while keeping alive the idea that these two man-children threw this together themselves. Stage managers Jacob Jackson and Charlotte Payne also deserve a shout-out for their brief appearances on stage in the rare moments where the two men are simply not enough to keep a story on track.
All in all, this is the kind of comedy duo who have delighted children and gained mild chuckles from parents for generations. There’s plenty you’ll have seen and heard before, and jokes you’ll get the punchline to a mile off, but this is a show for all the family and these jokes will be brand new to the little one. After a rough start to the new decade and this kind of mostly wholesome (pantos are known for off-colour jokes for the parents, after all) family entertainment in particular struggling to stay afloat, it was nice to see the children (and even some parents) leaving with a smile on their faces.
While hardly the brand-new toy a younger me might have wished for at Christmas, Potted Panto is hardly a lump of coal either. It may not be at the top of my Christmas list, but as stocking stuffers go you could certainly do worse. While not quite a theatrical masterpiece, it is sure to have your little ones squealing with glee.
Potted Panto plays at the Apollo theatre until 8th January 2023. Tickets from https://nimaxtheatres.com/shows/potted-panto/