The cast is made up of new members and more experienced FootlightsJack Rowan

Come the end of Michaelmas, it’s the hottest ticket. Everyone knows it – you’ve got to be quick to grab a seat at the ADC if you want to bear witness to the CUADC/Footlights’ feast of frivolity and tomfoolery in their annual pantomime. The team behind this year’s effort knows it too: in so many ways, its reputation precedes it. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining why, this time around, they thought they didn’t need to bother with the jokes.

It wasn’t that there weren’t any jokes. There were – plenty of them; it’s just that the vast majority were at best nothing to write home about, and at worst downright unfunny (“this soup is disgusting – just the way I like it”). Many raised a smile, perhaps a small chuckle, but from the Footlights – those hallowed folk so steeped in comedic prestige – one really comes to expect more. I was fortunate enough to review their pantomime this time last year, and on that occasion each and every member of the audience was left with splitting sides. Is it unreasonable to hold Rumpelstiltskin up to the same standards set by its predecessor?

I think not, particularly given that a very many of the cast members both on and off stage are old hands when it comes to this panto malarkey. In actual fact, the two who shone through were new additions to the line-up: William Ashford proved himself a winning vocalist, on top of his fine, dark, sardonic characterisation of the title misanthrope. But one whole star of the two on offer here must go to Zak Ghazi-Torbati, whose dame ‘Connie Ferous’ carried the show for periods. I have no hesitation in proclaiming his performance triumphant, whether in his improvisation, his incessant innuendo or his coy horseplay with ‘Misogynist Kyle’, which provided some wonderful impromptu comic moments.

Much too sparse were these flashes of promise, though, in part because the natural humour of the tavern-going chorus line typically failed to manifest itself: the likes of Orlando Gibbs and Riss Obolensky were criminally underused. It is hard to deny that the triptych of sets in which they boozed, spun and sang provided an impressive backdrop to proceedings; however, indeed, sincere ‘ooh’ noises could be heard from an audibly impressed audience as one number came to a close and a castle swung into view upon a revolving stage, the superb creation of manager Jack Swanborough.

The only trouble was, it seemed it didn’t work properly. As well as the directors making wholly insufficient use of the revolving set at their disposal (it was utilised in one scene, in which it felt like a directorial afterthought), after the ‘ooh’s had come to an end, we were left waiting an inordinate amount of time before events actually started up again on stage. This happened on a number of occasions, some of which were covered well by short transition scenes with widely-varying degrees of comic value, some of which were not. This may sound like a small, technical gripe, but its effect was to break up the slick flow of the production and allow the audience to become a little restless between gags. In a pantomime, this is a cardinal sin: if the jokes do not come fast enough, smiles start to fade.

The cast in dress rehearsalJack Rowan

The writers were guilty of these lapses in moments of wit not just in the downtimes between set changes, but more seriously in the musical numbers. A good pantomime surely depends upon its ditties, and in this case they were dull. Being dull is even worse a crime than being dreadful, especially at the theatre. The songs largely lacked the bounce of those one would expect to hear in a light-hearted pantomime, “more Sondheim than Schwartz”, according to assistant director Lily Lindon (I’m not sure that such a comparison is particularly well-deserved myself). Not only was the audio mixing so poor that one could hear relatively few of the lyrics above the band, but those that made their way through to my ears were not in the slightest amusing, and when a tune like central character Frieda’s ‘Straw Into Gold’ or Connie Ferous’ ‘Deeper and Deeper’ (I did mention that the innuendos were incessant) dragged on, it was disappointing even more than it was annoying.

It was so disappointing because there is a different yardstick for the Footlights: one expects a certain calibre given the reputation that these players are burdened with upholding – the calibre, indeed, of last year’s effort, the heady heights of which were not touched this evening, at least. Perhaps tonight was not indicative of the run, or perhaps it was; I cannot say. All this is not to say, however, that the panto did not have its moments. It certainly did: I have mentioned the dame, of course, but the actors’ topical references to Trump and Brexit had their spectators in great bouts of laughter, accompanied by some exquisite pantomime booing.

The recurring motif of Making Fun Of Northerners, too, was high on the list of grand moments of hilarity (without giving too much away, the chat-up line ‘Leeds has a leisure centre’ was a personal favourite). And yet, just as one willed these fleeting glimpses of fabulous fun to spill over and inject the remainder of the evening with vigour, it was held back from us. One could not help but feel as though the eye-watering budget of the show had been splashed all over the set, the costumes and the choreography without enough love and devotion spent on the beating heart: the jokes, the japes and the jingles. An impressive production quality and a few good gags sporadically throughout, picking up again towards the end, were not enough to save the day.

When I turned to my companion for the evening to ask whether the Pantomime 2016 edition had been enjoyable, a rather muted and reserved ‘yeah’ summed up my sentiments in a word. Rumpelstiltskin might leave you with a half-smile on your face, lulling you into thinking that you had had a good time, but for those who missed out in the dash for tickets I would say: if you’ve read this far, you’ll know you’ve not missed too much, and enjoy your moment of schadenfreude. Come back another year, when the seats will fill just as swiftly, regardless of the attention to detail that makes or breaks this unique panto