There are villains and mermaids, sailors and shipwrecks, a larger than life Dame, an evil mortician. There are snake skirts and kelp forests, a bearded lady and even – quite unexpectedly – a creature that is half dog and half squid!
Yes, it’s Panto season on Hopeless, Maine! The Grand Ole Opry is putting on its annual performance of The Fishwife’s Fortune and this years version is just as silly and noisy and colourful as you would expect from the Gristlemain Players.
The Grand Ole Opry stages its first in-house production since the theatre reopened after the regrettable discovery in the basement last year of the body of Calico Jones, which was covered by this periodical. This reviewer noted the similarities in historic cases at the venue where is seems every 10 years or so an amateur Thespian meets with an untimely curtain call.
However, It was clear from the start that cast and crew were determined to put that all behind them and make it one of Hopeless’s best-ever Pantos.
This reviewer was once more swept off his feet and whisked away to the mud hut on Spikers Moor and the heart-rending plight of wee Mell Mildew. We first see her toiling in the home of her wicked half-mother.
There were a few fluffed lines, the lighting was a bit dim, there was one unfortunate accident with one of the props (a cheese-wire fishing net) but the cast rose to the challenge admirably and we were spirited away to ancient Hopeless and the classic rags-to-riches story we know and love so well. It was truly an evening of music, glamour and glitz.
The performances would surely not have shamed the stage of a mainland theatre. It was impossible at times to believe that we were in modern age and the events on stage took on a reality of their own.
Appearing in his 45th panto as the Dame and directing the performance (as usual) is local showbiz legend, magician and raconteur, Wilbur Gristlemain. Wilbur brings his wicked wit and cheeky smile to the role of the Ur-hag, who grants wee Mell her most heartfelt wishes.
There really is something for everyone in this show and the gags come thick and fast – much like the very lifelike swarm of horseflies that take Mell’s neglectful family off to the pit in act two when she is first granted a wish by the Dame. This particular set-piece was without doubt a show stopper of epic proportions, the screams of the cast were wonderfully authentic sounding.
In fact it’s hard to single out the best performance. Jenny Greenteeth shines in the title role of Mell, displaying a confidence and maturity beyond her years. In his wonderfully over-the-top role as the mortician, Nahum Drabdoyle had me guffawing from the off – whilst Cressida Jowlfeather took the stage by storm as the villain of the piece (her outrageous headdress and face-paint matched by an equally outrageous performance where she only speaks in tongues). The entire supporting cast were enchanting and delivered one captivating scene after another.
As usual the music is provided by The fishermen of Gro, singing their haunting shanties. There was also plenty of ripe, traditional, panto banter intended to (hopefully) go straight over the heads of the younger audience, including an hilarious skit involving the spring fertility doll, an octopus and the old blind fisherman seeking a new bride… (you get the gist).
Remarkable, too, that this incredibly talented cast has not had the luxury of day-in-day-out rehearsals. When interviewed afterwords in the makeshift dressing room they all said that is was if they already knew their lines and always had known them and that they felt that they were almost in a dream when performing – a testament to the magisterial direction of Wilbur Gristlemain who has assembled a stellar array of local talent.
Gristlemain himself provided the most insightful comment on the Panto when I caught him ducking out of the back door. ‘The story is telling itself, the actors are just the vessels for it and the story will never end. It’s part of what roots us all to this island.’ Then the veteran performer went on his way into the evening, not without a touch of mystery about him.
All-in-all a truly remarkable achievement. Tickets available from the box office of The Grand Ole Opry.
Written by Charles Cutting-art by Tom Brown