On a quest to overthrow toxic masculinity: The cast of RapunzelPhotograph/Rebecca Tyson

For most of last night’s ADC panto I thought I was sitting in the family section. The people sitting around us were like parents at a nativity, laughing at every joke, applauding every song, whooping whenever a character walked on. It was only when this group collectively held their breath as a fake tree hovered down from the ceiling that I realised I was sitting next to the crew. Showing up to support the third night of the run was a decision made with good intentions, yet their presence cast a thin shadow on the night’s performance. Pre emotively laughing or clapping at every line strangled any organic chuckles which might have developed from audience. Given how excellent the night was, the crew ought to have more confidence in the production. This was an entertaining, vibrant play. They needed to let the thing breathe and trust that the audience fall in love with it themselves.

“The plot’s fairly cliché but unfolds organically. It’s also, crucially, funny”

This year’s CUADC/Footlight panto is a queer and colourful reimagining of Rapunzel. Like a toxic, laddish Claudius, King Chad (played by Theo Tompkins) has usurped the throne from twins Victor (Zachary Green) and Stella (Chani Merrell). After expelling artistic expression the kingdom, Chad sends the two heirs on a futile quest: find and marry Rapunzel (Oyin Olukotun), allegedly guarded by a dragon, Dame DragOn (Penny Balint). Accompanying them on this deadly mission is ubiquitous panto character Buttons (Iona Rogan) and the play’s Rosencratz and Guildenstern, Arson and Muggims (Dulcie Whadcock and Jemima Langdon). This is a panto so it’s hardly a spoiler to say Rapunzel is found, a revolution put together and everyone learns a valuable lesson about loving themselves.

A toxic, laddish Claudius: Theo Tompkins as King Chad and Zachary Green as Prince VictorPhotograph/Rebecca Tyson

The first half of the play is fantastic. Characters are introduced gradually without ever crowding the stage. The plot’s fairly cliché but unfolds organically. It’s also, crucially, funny– Chad and Button’s both have a hilarious stage presence while the writer’s find warm humour in Victor and Stella’s frustrations with suffocating gender norms. The score is terrific, composed by Matthew Mayes with a range of tunes from evil ballad’s to more moving numbers, usually reserved for the twins. Every actor on stage has a great voice and as a musical this is almost professionally done. Rapunzel’s late introduction gives the first half a north star which it reaches as the interval curtains fall.

“A musical is only as good as its music and the team behind Rapunzel ought to be incredibly proud”

The second half gets lost. The humour is still there – Chad’s bachelor party, references to Priti Patel and Button’s ‘camp inspector’ act get some big laughs. A romance between Stella and Rapunzel also introduces some awkward sweetness into the mix. Yet the momentum earned in the first half grinds to a hault as the writers procrastinate taking the group back to confront Chad. A series of meetings with characters including Rumpelstiltskin, the Pied Piper and Shrek or ‘Shrok’ are a drag, random and have the effect of making the whole thing too busy. Frustrating too are the repeated meta jokes. Breaking the fourth wall to address the meandering plot feels lazier than actually moving the story forwards. What this faltering second half illustrates is how much easier it is to introduce characters than developing existing ones; the whole Shrek scene comes at the expense of time with character’s we already know. When Chad is finally overthrown the play concludes with a terrific final song, its a shame we didn’t get here earlier.

Earnest romance: Chani Merrell as Stella and Oyin Olukotun as RapunzelPhotograph/Rebecca Tyson

The production of Rapunzel was executed flawlessly. Directors Elliot Aitken and Flo Winkley tested the capability of the ADC with frequent set changes, complicated lighting and sound effects. A testament to the crew that the whole thing was pulled off efficiently without any collapsing fake trees. The music was performed brilliantly by a talented live band in the pit: at the end of the day a musical is only as good as its music and the team behind Rapunzel ought to be incredibly proud.


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The cast were also brilliant. Tompkins as Chad was a wily, delightfully evil villain, ranging maniacally around the stage in a puffer – tunic costume. Green and Merrell brought a relaxed earnestness in their individual roles and the latter’s romance with Olukotun’s Rapunzel played with a light touch. Rogan as Button’s was so casually funny, armed with a collection of well timed asides to the audience, that they almost stole the whole show. Yet this was ultimately an ensemble piece and Aitken and Winkley played to everyone’s strengths.

This panto never departs from its form. While the writers may have reimagined Rapunzel, weaving in strands of queerness and self-love, the play hardly departed from the norms of the form. It has the complete package of audience participation, knowing jokes, simply drawn characters and a happy, festive ending. This is not a challenging piece of theatre but it is an incredibly entertaining one, a celebration of Cambridge talent and an excellent night at the ADC.

Rapunzel is running from Wednesday 24th until Saturday 4th December at the ADC Theatre.