Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure, St. John's Smith Square

Pantomime is best with the family. I didn't have a clutch of 5-year olds to hand but recognising one or two friendly faces on the stage and sitting behind an involved family of seven meant that I got the full effect of this new Christmas-themed children's musical staged at St. John's, Smith Square. The interior of the concert hall had been shrunk down with black curtains, making the audience space shallower and narrower (no seating under the galleries), a sensible decision that brings the audience closer to the front of the stage - and made little of being part of a modest audience at eleven o'clock on a New Year's eve morning.

The performance is a modest affair in scale too. A six-hander with a live band also of six (including the composer Jeff Moore directing from the piano) Jack Frost's Christmas Adventure is performed on a bare stage with a 'snow machine' at the footlights and a frosty seat for the eponymous Jack at the rear. The familiar backdrop of a window looking out into the square has been left in preference to a special backcloth. With this decision to keep the interior aspect of the auditorium more used to recital and orchestral concert and with the performers singing without amplification in the space, St. John's has retained its character.

The cast of a half-dozen have to work fairly hard in this situation. Though the songs are straightforward enough for the well-trained voices there is a great deal of choreography, as a necessarily high-energy child-centric show demands, as well as the unfamiliar demands of stretches of spoken dialogue and interaction. Matthew Sharp's Jack was excellent in the title role, managing a wink behind the gruff premise (his new type of snow has caused him to fall out with Santa and he's refusing to make any snow for Christmas) and slightly alarming make-up. Jack's son and Santa's daughter (Nick Allen & Joanna Foote) are the conventional lovers and Jane Webster eschews the Grotbags approach to the 'evil' Anti-Freeze with good reason: not only is the happy-ending an all-inclusive affair, but her lament of a final number benefits from her proper singing.

Above all I loved the rather more outrageous, crowd-pleaser characters, peripheral to the story but essential to the snap and crackle of the panto at this show's heart. Melanie Lodge played her Elf as a charismatic Essex blonde with wildly elastic emotions (and poses). She shares the stage with Peter Willcock's furry-white-onesie clad Polar Bear, quietly keeping the flame of the panto dame and leading the inevitable singalong number with some technical tips thrown in.

Rachel Barnett's book is played straight by director Bernie C. Byrnes; this is a lean musical that knows it's a panto but doesn't overplay the sentiment and concentrates on telling the story. Jeff Moore's music grins with melody (was that the Sussex Carol popping up in a first half number?) and there was plenty of interest from the young girls in front of me when instruments - particularly the horn - were featured.

In fact in the final analysis there's no better arbiter than the children who laughed a great deal and were more than happy to join in, though it must be said there was a little restlessness at the second of two ruminative numbers so soon after the interval. The honesty and charm - and bubble and foam of the snow machine - of the piece and performance were irresistible to children whether in age or at heart, as the opening number suggested.

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