Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

buttons and cinderella

Dexter Whitehead as Buttons and Phebe Jackson as Cinderella


Sutton Arts Theatre


Over the past few years Sutton Arts have taken panto by the scruff of its neck, oh yes they have, and turned it into a major, big budget event.

With many of the amateur companies that venture into pantoland, it is a let your hair down time, a bit of fun to give fringe actors, youth theatre, and indeed pretty well everyone who wants it, a chance to be in a production, a real community show, and there is nothing wrong with that.

But Sutton, in recent years, have taken a different line, treating panto like any other production, particularly like their big budget summer musical, with a traditional story, strong cast and ensemble, and slick dance routines.

It opens with Emily Armstrong, superb as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, who appears regularly in a puff of smoke as the Fairy Godmother, a character who speaks in rhyme, all of the time, with every line, sounding just fine, (sorry, getting carried away)

Apart from flashing a lot – pyrotechnically speaking – Emily is also directing the panto again, along with husband Dexter Whitehead, and the pair have again done a fine job. Whitehead takes on the crucial role of Buttons. Buttons, Baron Hardup’s butler, is the character who has to hold the entire show together as a sort of master of ceremonies, narrator and childrens’ entertainer, the latter being the really difficult bit.

But after an uncertain start on the childrens’ part (they have to decide if they like you) they soon warmed to him, and he carried the show along splendidly with some new(ish) jokes and some that got their bus pass many years ago, but that’s part of the appeal of panto, it is a retirement home for ancient one liners.

Adults appreciated the cheeky bits while kids were soon eating out of his hand enjoying particularly the noisy bits, the cheering, screaming of “Hello Buttons” and even more so the hissing and booing of the arch baddy, the wicked stepmother, played in a wonderfully understated way by Alison Daly. We had no histrionics, no screeching or snarling, just matter of fact, understated evil and a mission to make Cinerella’s life a misery.

ugly sisters

James Hutt as Mozzarella and Paul Atkins as Jalapeno, the Ugly Sisters 

Phebe Jackson, now a Sutton panto regular, Maisie Moo in Jack and the Beanstalk last year, is building a fine CV at Sutton with roles as diverse as Maria in West Side Story and Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire, and provides a sweet, innocent Cinders, with a lovely voice, and a kindly word for everyone, including her in your face step sisters, Mozzerella, played by James Hutt, and Jalapeno, played by Paul Atkins.

The Ugly Sisters are the stock in trade of panto, Cinderella’s version of the dame, the bloke in a dress, or in this case two of them, providing knockabout comedy as subtle as a house brick through a window.

Completing this (un)happy family album is Baron Hardup, played in a dithering way, under the thumb, or should that be talon, of the wicked stepmother, by Paul Wescott, who was Dame Buttercup last year.

Meanwhile, up the road at the palace, we have Tim Gough, who was Robbie in The Wedding Singer, as a charming Prince Charming with Ollie Farrelly, another from A Streetcar Named Desire, as his sensible side-kick Dandini.

A new addition to the tale is Marty the Mouse, a giant puppet operated by Giles Whorton and voiced by Toby Gretton, which was my grandson’s favourite character – never work with children or animals remember . . . and more on animals to come.

The directors plus chairman Colin Edge, Jeff Darlow and Mark Natrass have done a fabulous job with the set on Sutton’s restricted, flightless stage – flightless . . . no wings, get it (oh, come on it is pantomime), nor any flies, yet they manage a street scene, woods, palace, kitchen, steam room and bedroom, changing everything behind a scrim with minimal delay, which all helps to keep up a lively pace, essential if you don’t want to lose the attention of children.

The steam room is a simple traditional panto routine, short and sweet, and the production managed variations on other regulars, such as the spider on the bed and the ghost routines.

There was even a variation on the call children on stage bit with a game of statues involving custard pies - work it out for yourself - but it was great fun all organised by Buttons and Cinders.

A highlight was a version on The Twelve Days of Christmas with the Ugly Sisters, Baron Hardup, Buttons and Fairy Godmother with toilet rolls, rubber chickens, water pistols . . . you get the idea, which was cleverly done. A very slick routine.

Indeed slick sums up the entire show with two large ensembles, 13 in the adult group and 12 in the junior, who all played their part, particularly in the impressive dance numbers which was down to choreographers Emma Green, a teacher at Julie Johnson School of Dance, and Anna Forster (West Side Story, The Wedding Singer). Even with such numbers, the stage never looks crowded.

Music, under the direction of Jon Clarke, is pleasant enough without being memorable, but they have a lot of cues to follow and Emily Armstrong and Tom Brookes’ sound design keeps everything well balanced, while David Ashton’s lighting design, like the sound, has plenty of cues, with enough variety to make life interesting.

The production has some splendid costumes, some hired, some designed by Emily Armstrong and Phebe Jackson with Phebe designing and making a very clever rags to ball gown transformation dress which works well.

But remember what we said about animals? The opening performance suffered a technical hitch with a giant pumpkin refusing to transform neatly into a magical fairy coach, needing the odd nudge to fold its canopy and produce wheels, and finally it was flogging a dead horse time, literally, when the horse meant to pull the coach – not a real one I hasten to add – refused to stand up.

Glorious, wonderful fun which delighted the audience, a magical, marvellous malfunction. It will probably not happen again, and the transformation will still be magical and marvellous but without the malfunction . . . and it will have a vertical horse, but for a few moments it was pure, joyous, comedy gold. And isn't that what panto is all about? Fun.

Sutton have come up once again with a quality, traditional, family panto which can be enjoyed by anyone from toddlers to grannies. Tickets are going fast, Oh yes they are. To 16-12-17

Roger Clarke


Home Reviews A-Z Reviews by affiliate