The secret is surely that the cast are enjoying themselves as much as the audience is. One of the hardest things for an amateur actor is to sustain knockabout comedy, but in this production there are four clown-ish figures – Bobby Boltz (Chris Duell), Tom Hood (Pete Whitaker), Mary Hood (Lucy Lamb, a delicious name for someone playing a shepherdess) and Granny Hood (Paul Barrington) – each of whom has their own take on keeping the laughs coming and on interacting with the audience. Pete Whitaker is particularly good as the chavviest of chavs and is a natural mover on stage, while Paul Barrington carries off the dame's part with great confidence, helped by a series of ever more fantastical costumes; the jodhpurs and jockey's cap are particularly memorable.
Coral Norton, at only 17, makes a pretty and sparky Red Riding Hood. Her would-be devourer, the Big Bad Wolf (Mike Young) is, if anything, rather too suave and almost likeable; we boo and hiss him, of course, but our hearts aren't really in it. We also cheer enthusiastically for Fiona, the forest fairy, who as played by Debra Crowton shows more than a hint of Joyce Grenfell and has a rare rapport with the audience.
It is a lovely twist to the script that the principal boy, Jason the woodcutter, who is normally played either in fishnet tights and a short tunic or by a virile young hunk (not both), is here portrayed as a civil servant in dark suit and bowler hat. Chris Moore throws himself into the part but whether the problem is his diction or a dodgy amplification system, his lines are often difficult to hear.
The perennial headache of too few men in the chorus is evident, but in this production it really doesn't matter as the (mostly) ladies of the chorus look beautiful – the dame does not have the monopoly on lovely costumes – and sing well in some impressive ensemble numbers, notably 'We will survive'. In fact, musical director Ian Carter brings the best out of his singers throughout.
All the traditional elements of panto are here, including the dozen or so children who go on stage to help sing 'Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?' and who on the first night were in serious danger of stealing the show despite the excellence of the cast.
There were times on the first night when the pace seemed to drag, and the cast might have been better served by writer John Morley if he had tightened up the dialogue in several places and dropped one or two numbers: at two hours forty minutes (including the interval), the production could lose twenty minutes and be the better for it. But the pleasant abiding memory is of excited children's cries of 'He's behind you' and 'Don't pick the flowers, go straight to Granny's' – which is exactly as it should be after a panto.
Their telling of Red Riding Hood's battle with the Big Bad Wolf is no average amateur performance but a showcase of their members' impressive talents.
The villagers of Trumpeting-on-the-Marsh are determined to get the better of the wicked wolf. But with gormless farmhands Nutz and Bolts, self-styled King of the Chavs Tom Foolery and helpless shepherdess Mary Hood in their midst, this is no easy task.
Coral Norton is impressive in the lead role and has a powerful singing voice that made light work of some testing musical numbers.
Mike Young is a convincing wolf, scary enough to prompt plenty of boos and hisses but intriguing rather than terrifying the children.
And Pete Whitaker was my personal favourite as Ali G wannabe Tom Foolery. He had real fun with the role and coped masterfully with the odd hitch.
The cast acted, sang and danced superbly but were let down slightly by a script that, for me, was over-long.
The first half alone ran to an hour and 20 minutes - unquestionably good value for money - but perhaps a bit much for younger children.