From the sublime to the ridiculous via Vauxhall and prize for the funniest and filthiest Christmas show of the year goes to Above the Stag’s annual LGBT panto which this year is a retelling of Pinocchio. Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper’s mile-a-minute script is directed with spunky flair by new artistic director Andrew Beckett.
Man-mad Gepetta (an astounding Matthew Baldwin, who looks like Lucille Ball on acic, sounds like David Niven, and rules the entire production with an irreverent wit) and her lonely only-lesbian-in-the-village niece Cornetta (a touchingly relatable Christy Bellis) are art thieves on the run from the Vatican. With their slutty pussy (a louchely confident Briony Rawle, dressed as the year 2005), they try to survive, keep their heads down, and pursue romance.
When Dami Olukoya’s sparkly, take no shit lesbian fairy turns Pinocchio into a real boy whose finds it’s not his nose that grows longer when he lies, they are pitched into a war with with local evil landowner and fox Figaro (Christopher Lane, playing the villain with what can only be described as “moustache-twirling glee” despite absence of actual moustache). What follows is two hours of devilry, topless Sunday league Brummie footballers, magic Cadbury’s creme eggs, abandoned amusement parks, farting donkeys, a retelling of the Biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale except with drag and ballroom dancing… oh, look, it’s a panto, okay? It doesn’t need to make sense.
Though for all the ridiculousness it does manage to make sense, and beneath the puns and non-stop gags (the action takes place in the Italian hamlet of Placenta, the kind of place people move to “after birth”) is real empathy and belief in the transformative power of love, or at least the discovery of your small town’s one lesbian bar. In a recent Stage article Beckett announced his intention to make London’s LGBT theatre more reflective of the diversity of the LGBT spectrum, and as much as I love Above the Stag it does have a history of producing plays primarily about about white, cis gay men. Pinocchio isn’t perfect, but to see so much lesbian representation in a panto is not just enjoyable, it’s damn important.
Panto is pretty gay already, but this production is deliciously, unashamedly queer: it doesn’t so much flirt with its audience as shag it senseless behind the alley then send it home missing its wallet. I’m sure Jared Thompson (whose weapons-grade boyishness manages to stay this side of cloying) in donkey ears and a dog collar is meeting someone’s very specific fetish, but all shades of gender and sexual identity are welcome at Above the Stag.
If I was a different kind of critic I could write an insightful analysis of the satirical examinations of capitalism and the class system subtly seeded through this clever, zingy script. But I’m not, so I’ll just say: wasn’t it great how they got out of that whale?
Pinocchio No Strings Attached is on until 11 January 2020 http://www.abovethestag.com/vxl/whatson/pinocchio-no-strings-attached/