Zak Ghazi-Torbati is perfect as the dameJohannes Hjorth

Every year the Footlights’ pantomime gets longer and longer. Last year’s The Princess and the Pea ran at two and a half hours, already too much for a pantomime — any kind of light entertainment struggles to sustain itself past the ninety minute mark — but, nonetheless, The Emperor’s New Clothes manages to beat it, coming in at exactly three hours by my watch, exceeding many operas, art films and performances of Shakespeare. This doesn’t feel like a problem for the first act (one hour, forty-five minutes) and the interval comes without much drag or clock-watching; once the second act gets underway, however, it’s difficult not to look forward to the inevitable happy wrap-up. It’s not that there are any characters or comic sequences or bits of business which feel weaker than the rest and obviously should have been cut, but the director (Kennedy Bloomer) really should have shown more red pen discipline when preparing the show for performance. There’s only so much slapstick, bawdy humour and audience heckling one can take of an evening. 

One cause — or consequence — of this excess of material is that there are simply too many characters who aren’t properly introduced. It might seem precious or inappropriate to nitpick over ‘proper pantomime technique’, but the traditional formula works, and accounts in no small measure for its continued success. The heroine of New Clothes, Mathilda (Georgie Henley), doesn’t appear until when into the first act, and even then only fleetingly; one could be forgiven, indeed, for missing that she was the heroine at all, assuming instead that she was just one of the many passing minor characters, despite Henley's entertaining performance. The hero, Emperor Wilf, nearly gets lost in a similar way, despite a charming and hilarious performance from Aydan Greatrick. The hero and heroine should really be on in almost every scene (although not necessarily at the same time) without much interruption from other characters, even the Dame, her sidekick, and the villain: there is no room for subplots in pantomime. That said, Flo Inkwell (Zak Ghazi-Torbati) gets the Dame’s perfect blend of the fabulous and outrageous, and the ensemble are fantastic, with most members taking on two or three parts. The chorus numbers are by far the highlights of the show. 

Aydan Greatrick is both charming and hilariousJohannes Hjorth

Ryan Rodrigues clearly has a good ear for pastiche. His score is filled with delightfully reminiscent melodies — his rewriting of Mr Burns’ ‘See My Vest’ for Wilf’s wardrobe exhibition is a particular highlight — although Ben Glassberg’s band could go at them with more gusto. The set is unfortunately unimaginative, considering the resources available: painted houses rolling on and off in storybook style are standard for the genre, but the nondescript ‘Medieval English village’ setting of New Clothes feels particularly heartless. No one is asking for sci-fi, Western or other gimmicky twists (quite the opposite, in fact), but a little bit of thought and, most importantly, flare would be nice. 

Ellen Robertson and Rosanna Suppa (both pictured) are firm favouritesJohannes Hjorth

There are some great gags, including an impressive collection of Ann Widdecombe references, and the puns hit the sweet spot of awkwardly audacious (or audaciously awkward); but who would expect less of the Footlights? The repartee between the various pairings of minor characters is consistently charming and superbly timed — the highlight is undoubtedly the villain’s typically hapless sidekicks, played by Ellen Robertson and Rosanna Suppa — and the whole cast delivers a steady stream of joie de vivre which makes the show a pleasure to watch. An unfortunate consequence of this is that some of the principles appear somewhat flat and uninspiring during their solo scenes and duets — with some needed to work more on their singing and dancing — but, nonetheless, the numbers are pleasing, the performances are generally strong, and it goes without saying that there are far worse pantomimes out there.

Although The Emporer’s New Clothes doesn’t quite reach the standard set by last year’s production, it is colourful and highly entertaining, and certainly earns its place as the latest installment of a Cambridge Christmas tradition. 

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