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King Arthur in Space

by on 8 December 2019

Starship Troupers

King Arthur in Space

by Loz Keal

Teddington Theatre Club at Hampton Hill Theatre, until 14 December

Review by Matthew Grierson

When England’s need is greatest, King Arthur will rise again. And so – long, long ago and yet somehow in the future, as the scrolling, Star Wars-style intro wittily puts it – Arthur King is roaming the stars in search of the evil Mrs Morgan, who has fled the Earth she has despoiled and polluted.

I hope this précis is of benefit to the mums and dads too busy settling their kids in to have picked it up, because it’s about as much plot as King Arthur in Space provides. I bring this up as I overheard two parents during the interval trying to puzzle out what was actually going on, which gave me occasion to think about how much narrative you want in your panto.

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Certainly the production offers plenty of the expected spectacle, with high-energy dance numbers hot on the well-drilled heels of one another. These vary from big troupe deployments and graceful brawls to a ballet solo by choreographer Kelly-Marie Tuthill, which accompanies a tender romantic rendition of ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’. Given that the songs span everything from Queen to S Club 7 to Billie Eilish, there is something for every generation to sing along to, the lyrics slyly seasoned with outer-space references to bring them into the spirit of the play. Even more impressive than this range is Jessica Hunt’s own in her singing as Gwen, keeping the energy up through the show.

The other performances, if not all of the singing, are largely as peppy as this. Highlights are Nicky Shaw as cheery principal boy Lance and Anna Strain as reluctant baddy Wainga, who are destined for a bipartisan romance – despite the dastardly machinations of Danielle Thompson, chewing the scenery as Mrs Morgan, and Dave Dadswell as the equally dastardly if dim-witted Dredmor. Naomi Pink gives a cute turn as robot D4-QP, while Juanita Al-Dahhan takes good care of Dame duties as Dotty. Only Scott Tilley as Arthur is a little less forceful than you’d imagine; but this does allow for a neat reversal of cliché when he’s captured by Mrs Morgan and Gwen has to marshal his crew to rescue him.

The production boasts the high values you’d expect of TTC shows, and their pantos in particular – the costumes of Mags Wrightson and the wardrobe team are an entertaining mish-mash of science fiction styles. These are helpfully colour-coordinated into a cool blue pastiche of the Star Trek uniform for the Camelot crew, something redder and more steampunk for Gwen and her fellow denizens of the planet Boogie Woogie, and a purple Goth-inspired look for (boo-hiss) Morgan and her henchpersons.

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Fiona Auty’s set design takes a similar tack, with the Camelot control room and the villains’ lair, stage right and stage left respectively, comprising antiquated computer keyboards and monitors, sci-fi bric-a-brac such as an R2D2 statue and a portrait of Aladdin Sane, and tinsel – so much tinsel. This opens on to an upstage screen that enable quick scene changes from rock quarry to starfield to Disneyfied forest. This gives plenty of opportunities for surprise entrances – sneaky Cybermen and gruesome Gorn – and pop-up puppetry, though when characters are speaking from the porthole of the Camelot it’s not always immediately apparent where the voices are coming from, as not all the audience gets a clear line of sight.

In the same way memorabilia are strewn across the stage, the script is liberally scattered with quotations from various sci-fi films and TV programmes. This is a bit like a game of bingo for a middle-aged nerd such as me, mouthing along with the recycled Doctor Who dialogue, but seems to be a bit lost on the better-adjusted families in the audience, and given its frequency runs the risk of becoming self-indulgent. Longueurs are largely avoided, though, thanks to an equally judicious sprinkling of puns for all the family, most of which hit their mark.

The show is also as choc-full of clever ideas as a Christmas selection box. For instance, seemingly defeated in just scene two, Mrs Morgan is granted a Time Lord-like regeneration with Josh Clarke (surprisingly, the only man in drag here) becoming Danielle Thompson to pursue her evil plans. Then, the computer on board the starship Camelot, Merlin, appears as a disembodied head in a wheeled-on Punch & Judy booth or through a cheekily placed TARDIS window – think Holly from Red Dwarf – and is portrayed with deadpan brilliance by Hannah Lobley. Infected with a computer virus by Mrs M., Merlin crash-lands the ship, taking the show into proper panto territory in perhaps the cleverest conceit of all, the planet of the washed-up Disney princesses.

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But the law of the conservation of energy states that it can neither be created or destroyed, merely transferred: and with so much invested in the song-and-dance numbers, the links, such as they are, go comparatively slack. Transitions between scenes could be snappier, and the dialogue, in the princess scenes in particular, could be picked up with more pace.

As I speculated, we’re not probably not depending too much on plot. But given that sending King Arthur into space means we’re heading literally into uncharted territory, it might have helped to have a stronger sense of where we were going. When he pulls a sword from a polystyrene rock early on in proceedings, for instance, it barely registers, even as a wink to the original myth. Is it a joke? A plot point? It doesn’t end up being either. Neither does the repeat business of finding out that A-Vow-Ma – a fox-like Tralfamadorian, in case you wondered, rather than Kurt Vonnegut’s time-transcending aliens for whom she is named – can speak English and not just animal grunts.

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But then, what do I know? I’m only an old geek, and the kids tonight certainly enjoy the show, and by the end are waving their inflatable lightsabers with gusto. It may not always be moving at warp speed, but King Arthur in Space is at least a bold go at somewhere panto has never gone before.

Matthew Grierson
December 2019

Photography by Joe Stockwell

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