Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Milton Keynes Theatre uses sparkling silliness and splendid star turns to entertainingly prove that justice always prevails in pantoland.
It’s that time of year again, so here is festive fun in a familiar format that eggs on giggly audience participation. For Christmas 2022’s seasonal spectacular, theatregoers are cast as the good people of the pantomime jury and called as witnesses to boo Queen Dragonella (Lesley Joseph). The judge who reflects on evidence of her wrongdoings is The Man In The Mirror (Rob Rinder).
Dragonella’s jester, Muddles (Aaron James), and gofer, Oddjob (Paul Chuckle), wind her up by using her real name (“sorry Lesley!”). And they warm us up with impish icebreakers, including shopping-tossing, joke-telling and swordplay. Elsewhere, Princess Snow White (Charlotte Haines) and Prince Harry of Haversham (Dale Mathurin) endearingly fall in love as soon as they meet. Later, one of them will fall for a Granny Smith.
Fortunately, our enduring belief in the power of good is at the core of the narrative, so the right person ends up being brought to their knees. Which reminds me: the quirky roll call of the magnificent seven reaches new heights in this production.
Truth be told, there are no bad apples here. Everyone dazzles and delights in sweet, satisfying, superlative ways. Together, they make surreal scenarios and bonkers banter seem fair enough.
Given the recent sub-zero temperatures, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is not only the fairest panto in the land, but also the most apt weather-wise. Shimmering snowflakes adorn the front of the stage and accompany shadowy apples as projections beamed around the auditorium. Add the blazing flames of the pyrotechnics into the mix and the anticipation for this winter-fest of a story to begin skyrockets.
The fairy-tale world is inviting, colourful and beautifully lit. There is no doubt that it is wintertime – there are snow-topped fir trees in both the palace courtyard and the forbidden forest. The costumes are gorgeous, particularly those worn by the excellent ensemble. They stay cosy and chic in jewel-toned velvet coats, accessorised with fur-trimmed hats and gloves. They exude all the festive feels in candy-cane-striped dresses with frothy petticoats, or smart suits with glittery waistcoats. They throw celebratory shapes in flamboyant, fuchsia-pink party outfits.
The dancing is sublime. Ashley Nottingham’s choreography pays homage to golden-age musical theatre and all the routines are performed with exuberance and precision. Dancers glide gracefully in the balletic opening number, floating through supported lifts. Soon after, a winter wonderland medley sees them walking alongside a snowman and snowballing into scene-setting formations. Charming and so Christmassy.
The singing is easy on the ear, especially from Charlotte Haines as Snow White and Dale Mathurin as Prince Harry. It’s a shame they don’t get a bigger slice of the running time as they both have stunning voices. The musical arrangements include original songs, upbeat pop tracks and seasonal favourites.
Magical moments come courtesy of the clever costumes and puppetry used for the dwarfs, whose appearances seem sparse but are memorable. A scene featuring them with cute and cuddly forest creatures has audience members of all ages “awww”-ing and guffawing in equal measure.
Topical and localised humour is plentiful (real-life royals, Liz Truss and the MK Dons are a few targets). Madcap mistakes – scripted and unscripted – flout theatrical conventions and add to the high jinks. Notably, the script makes a lot of who the stars are, which does dwarf the Snow White story. But this is a pantomime – anything can happen. Indeed, with larger-than-life personalities to spotlight and play off against each other, it does! What matters is that the mayhem they create is lapped up by kids and grown-ups alike.
Aaron James is everyone’s best friend as Muddles, winning us over with quips, confusion and impressions. He clambers onto a moped to close the first act, brimming with infectious enthusiasm. (This enthusiasm may well have kept the wheels of our imaginations turning when a minor malfunction on press night meant the mechanics were momentarily revealed.) Muddles on a moped demonstrates that, with so much going on in panto, you just need to ride the ups and downs – and the round-and-arounds!
Paul Chuckle is in his element as Oddjob. His presence, along with the ChuckleVision theme and “to me, to you” catchphrase, inspires nostalgia for the big kids, amusement for the little ones and laughs from everyone. The comedy camaraderie between Paul and Aaron is terrific and very natural.
Rob Rinder is guilty of being dizzy with excitement as The Man In The Mirror. Wearing a smile that is almost as dazzling as his sequinned costume, he looks like he is having the time of his life putting his Strictly training to use. He spins then strikes a pose. He pivots and shimmies. He even cartwheels.
Lesley Joseph is wonderful as a wicked queen. She is a natural comic and so charismatic that it causes something of an internal conflict: to boo or not to boo? She carries off hilarious hocus-pocus hypnosis, relishes indulging in sorcery in Dragonella’s secret laboratory and could never be made to look like an idiot!
If you overthink things, some of the sequences could feel overlong. But you just need to surrender to the silliness. Where else are you going to experience a ridiculously extended adaptation of ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’, with Lesley Joseph lobbing loo rolls and Judge Rinder pouting in response to his rubber gloves going missing? And if you think you know what to expect when audience members take to the stage, think again. Muddles and Oddjob lead a rollicking, roaming retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, featuring the requisite chairs, porridge – and bin bags?!
Thanks to the randomness of panto, there really is something for everyone. The cast get one bite of the apple to introduce children to theatre and leave the adults merry and bright. Put like that, it’s really snow joke. It’s quite a responsibility.
Verdict reached: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does panto justice. It is in the public interest that everyone goes to see it because, no matter what happens, it will lift your (festive) spirits.
Approximate running time: Act One is 55 minutes, the interval is 20 minutes and Act Two is 50 minutes.
*Production photography by Barry Rivett.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Sunday 8 January 2023.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.