It was great to be back at the (nearly) newly refurbished Manoel Theatre (the stall seats are still temporary) to watch this year’s Christmas Panto by Masquerade – Alice in Wonderland – A traditional Christmas Panto.  Although there are other venues regularly hosting pantos every year nothing says tradition like watching a Christmas panto in the beautiful baroque environment of the Manoel surrounded by hundreds of screaming kids.

The success of a panto relies heavily on the ability of the performers (particularly the dame) to connect with the diverse members of the audience. Over the last few years, Malcolm Galea has not only left his mark as a strong panto scriptwriter, but has also become one of the island’s most entertaining panto dames. Anthony Bezzina, in his director’s note, rightly points out that the show is not a one-man-show but the result of a (large) team effort yet without a lovable dame all that effort would not burn itself into the memories of the audience members for years to come and would simply be forgotten come January. Once again, Galea does not disappoint; his script adapts a well known story simply yet very successfully and he also manages to connect warmly to both adults and children alike with his strong characterisation.

In true panto tradition the script has its fair share of witty double entendres and cheeky (albeit mild) political jokes. Yet, the main interest is sustained by the smooth flow of the storyline that sees Alice, a sickly child, escape the clutches of her overbearing mother by losing herself in her own imaginary Wonderland pursued by her Irish governess Nanny O’Beezwax. In Wonderland she meets a host of strange characters, falls foul of the wicked Queen of Hearts and falls in love with Jack of Hearts.

The show boasts an excellent cast led by stage veterans like the versatile Stephen Oliver excelling as the Mad Hatter, Catherine Brown as the Queen of Hearts/Mother and Joseph Zammit, charming as the wonderful White Rabbit. Yet there were other great performances from the rest of the cast and the chorus, particularly from Mandy Randon as a cheeky yet lovable Cheshire Cat, Maria Eleonora Schembri and Rebecca Brincat as the fickle Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee respectively and a deadpan Joe Depasquale as a wonderfully sardonic Caterpillar. It was also interesting to note the frequent use of hand puppetry to give life to characters like the Door Mouse and the Rabbit.

Both the costume and the set design deserve praise as well as the wonderful musical score provided by the talented band and singers under the direction of Kris Spiteri. Panto is essentially musical theatre and the majority of the song and dance numbers were very well choreographed and wonderfully sung. I must say that the opening number was one of the best I’ve ever witnessed on a local stage. My favourite moment of this show was, however, the song sheet number. Galea turns the well-known tune of the Irish folk song The Wild Rover (No, Nay Never) into a rousing sing along that had a full theatre screaming the chorus at the top of their lungs. That’s no mean feat and it’s testimony to his ability to entertain an audience of any size and age.

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