Saturday, December 12, 2015

'Clementine's Seasonal Spectacular' at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, 10th December 2015

Thursday saw me battling a monumental hangover. Things had gotten a little too late in Camden the night before, resulting in a day where my eyes felt like dried prunes, my teeth rattled in my gums and my brain was squeezed like a sponge. It wasn't your typical hangover, it was monumental, I'm talking giving talks in schools about it bad.

Needless to say I wasn't in the mood for a Christmas show. Especially not one that seemed to revolve around gimmicky puppetry. But I trekked up to the Rosemary Branch regardless, hoping that whatever Clementine's Seasonal Spectacular turned out to be, it wouldn't be extraordinarily painful. 

With that grim sense of foreboding that arises when you're welcomed by a puppet I took an anonymous seat in the third row, huddling down and sipping at a blessedly alcohol-free orange juice. The first number begins: "Hey, this might be tolerable after all..." I think. Soon a gigantic cockerel puppet is working through a sexualised Tom Jones parody ("Huh, that's good puppetry"). By 15 minutes in I can feel the misery draining out of my frontal lobes and I manage a chuckle - the first positive emotion I've felt all day.

As the second half begins I'm positively upbeat and (at Grumpy Gay Critic's urging) have migrated to the front row. As the show ends it's as if my grey matter has been thoroughly expunged of all the booze-soused misery I entered with. I'm a new man. That's what a good night at the theatre can do for you.

'Clementine' is the brainchild of Mark Mander. Slathered in slap, false eyelashes fluttering and his smile a perfect white slash, his head hovers above a diminutive doll's body. The Barbie-like rest of him, twiggy arms expressively puppeteered creates an initially eerie effect. You get used to it in a couple of minutes, the combination of the tiny body and Mander's impressively expressive facial expressions adding up to an attractively amusing comic creations.

Clem is the figurehead of a night that features randy cockerels, bulimic bluebottles and a smattering of the spookily supernatural. Split into two halves, the first follows the backstage drama =themed, segmented into a series of musical numbers with video wraparounds.

The second half descends into panto proper, with the story of a post fairytale Snow White (as played by Clem) . This proves to be a loose James Bond parody that takes her under the sea, skiing through the mountains and into a classically styled volcano base where an evil Maggie Thatcher-a-like plots the demise of all happiness in the world.

Throughout the show there's an easy and friendly atmosphere. Appropriately for panto, Clem leaves the fourth wall in tatters and, naturally, the story is never taken particularly seriously. But the unpretentious atmosphere shouldn't be mistaken for carelessness, this was one of the most rigorously designed and performed shows I've seen in quite some time.

Highlights are some genuinely impressive props and costumes. During the undersea sequence Clem emerges within a glittering submarine, surrounded by friendly fish. It's one hell of a piece of stage design - to look at it is to understand that whoever created this has a spark of talent backed up by a seriously strong work ethic. More surprises come in the shape of a full-size Chinese dragon puppet and an all-singing all-dancing feather-filled finale. The video interludes are of a similar quality - produced with the kinds of 3D animation that you generally don't expect to find in shows above pubs. 

All this is performed with whipcrack timing and big heaping barrels of personality. Aside from Mander, the cast are Steve Nallon (a Spitting Image alumni who does an uncanny Thatcher impression), burly bodybuilder genie Jack Jefferson and puppeteers Stewart Fraser, Lesa Gillespie and Clare Pointing. All are straightforwardly excellent.

The only nitpicks I have is that the lengthy video interludes, while entertaining, aren't particularly theatrical. Similarly, the decision to have practically all the dialogue pre-recorded and lipsynced sucks a little spontaneity out and introduces a mild artificiality into evening. I can understand that co-ordinating puppetry, music cues and video must be a colossal pain in the arse, but it somewhat defeats the purpose of a theatre watch a projected video.

That said, Clementine's Seasonal Spectacular entertained me from tip to toe, kindling a genuine spark of Christmassy-ness inside me. I stepped out into a drizzly night with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, the miseries of the day wiped clean. Right now this is my bone-fide 'check this out' Christmas show recommendation. I can't imagine anything dislodging it in a hurry.


Clementine's Seasonal Spectacular is at the Rosemary Branch until 10 January. Tickets here.

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