Image above: Matt Tester, Olivia Jackson & Daniel Wain in Look Behind You at the Tabard; photograph Marc Brenner
Review by By Simon Thomsett
The Theatre at the Tabard has just opened with its new show, Look Behind You, and it is one ambitious undertaking. A cast of 11 (backstage must be interesting) take us through a gruelling pantomime season at the fictional Britannia Theatre presenting a traditional, if slightly ropey version of Dick Whittington.
Interspersed with the onstage antics, backstage intrigue provides a plot or two and some insight into the unique “band of brothers” mentality that such a season inevitably generates.
The show originates from 1999 but has been extensively updated (by well over 60% according to a programme note), to include a number of modern references that have been woven into a rather uneven narrative which takes a while to get going; this is a show that could do with an edit.
Image above: Cait Hart Dyke & Mia Skytte; photograph Marc Brenner
Opening in front of a lush cascading front curtain, we start in 1347; Fairy Bowbells is joined by the wicked Queen Rat, described as a middle-ages Suella Braverman, the first of the contemporary references.
As they exit, we go backstage into a wing where the others wait to go on or rush through having mis-timed their entrances, all overseen by a rather relaxed stage manager type who has seen it all and has troubles of her own. A prominent Noises Off flyer attached to the noticeboard flags an obvious influence.
And so it goes on, moving back and forth between the two locations, throwing in the odd moment in a dressing room, leading to an ending which teeters on the edge of being a little too self-congratulatory as it romanticises the backstage life.
Image above: Annabel Miller & Olivia Jackson; photograph Marc Brenner
That said, the production values are high: the sets are clever, look suitably lived in, and make full use of the Tabard stage. The design flourishes extend to some lavish costumes, particularly for Sam Nancarrow / Sarah the Cook, played with energetic vigour by the author, Daniel Wain, entirely in a succession of enjoyably ridiculous dame outfits that would not be out of place at one of the more spectacular regional pantos.
There are a number of pantomime actor stereotypes here: a TV weather girl, once “a nation’s sweetheart”, upset that her songs are frequently weather related; a monstrous reality TV star who was once nominated for “best thingy at the TV whatsit awards” only to be beaten by a Teletubby; a clueless pop star who breaks hearts backstage and bursts into song every now and again when in character, much to the imagined audience’s delight; an enjoyably annoying young buck, fresh out of drama school, knowing it all and just asking for some comeuppance; and former stars, now slogging it out twice daily in a leaky, fire trap of an ageing theatre.
Image above: Daniel Wain as Sam Nancarrow; photograph Marc Brenner
Towering over them all is Sam Nancarrow. Daniel Wain is loud, raucous and sniggeringly vulgar and he gives himself a lot of the best panto gags. As the guiding light both onstage and in real life, his commitment to the cause is beyond question. The rest of the cast acquit themselves well enough, but the choppy format works against convincing character development.
The long first half sets everyone up, but offers only snippets of actual story and when the various strands play out further in the second half, they can seem a little inconsequential. Indeed, the second half has some quite drastic tonal changes and gets all serious for a while, taking in relationship breakdowns, terminal illness, financial crises and even the purpose and meaning of Theatre.
It’s at this point that the show takes to the soapbox and rails against the government, the Arts Council and the local authorities for their destructive indifference:
“Why do the Philistines keep cut, cut, cut, cutting?” laments Sam, it’s a good point, but it feels like it is from a different show.
In the end, Look Behind You is a mixed bag but has a lot of ambition, a number of funny gags, something to say about the state of the arts in our country where “theatre isn’t a right, just an option” (discuss) and quite a lot of actual packed-with-innuendo pantomime. It’ll get you talking. Look Behind You runs to Saturday 3 February.
Since leaving full time work last year, he is now working as a consultant and on some small scale producing projects. He is a Chiswick resident and a passionate advocate for great theatre.