27 DECEMBER 1963, Page 17

Chestnuts and Crackers

By MALCOLM RUTHERFORD Merry Roosters Panto (Wyndham's)—The Pan- ther and the Unicorn (New Arts)—Treasure

Island (Mermaid) — Peter Pan (Scala.) CHILDREN make very good

audiences. At the end of the first week of Christmas shows, I have two observa tions: that they will appear' - to enjoy almost anything and that if it's any comfort to a child who has been hauled before its class for rustling the occasional sweet-paper, children with school parties are vastly better behaved than children with parents. At the Joan Littlewood pantorniine at Wyndham's the phrase on everyone's lips was 'audience participation'. It covered a variety of shouts and murmurs, boos and hisses and general stamping of feet, but it was as nothing compared to the delirium which threatened to break out when the Ugly Sisters did a brief imitation of the Beatles. Nor did it come up to the ecstatic shouts at the resuscitation of Tinker Bell in Peter Pan at the Scala.

Miss Littlewood's company starts with so many natural advantages, with the splendid faces from Oh, What a Lovely War of Victor Spinetti, Brian Murphy and George Sewell, with a script by Peter Shaffer and music and songs by Stanley Myer, with a few lyrics by Lionel Bart thrown in, that it is surprising to find how hard one has to work to enjoy it. Mr. Shaffer's script is weak, the lyrics scarcely memorable and the careless enthusiasm of the player is often just carelessness. But the story, which is basically Cinderella, has been given some new and clever turns. Prince Charming has become a spaceman, the prize a trip to the moon and, best of all, Cinderella is more or less made to work her passage to the ball. It is a pity that it is spoiled by the tedious introduction of a villainous theatre manager trying to stop the show and put on an afternoon of Welsh singing instead. 'You may'not enjoy it, but it will be good for you and that's what matters"; too much is sacrificed to get that line in. Far better to have had the villain trying to stop the ball. At the end there is a massive hand- out of Christmas crackers, none of which reach the circle.

Yet the Merry Roosters have a point about enjoyment. The 'Panther and the Unicorn at the New Arts for ten to fifteen year olds is a terrible Moral tale about a girl who is unkind to cripples setting out .'to find herself'. The children take it, but, I imagine, would hardly go back for more. This is consciously developed theatre for children with no revealing skeletons of the author's psy- chology lurking underneath. Oliver Jennings makes a patronising concession to convention by the introduction of a clown, Bobbleflink. 'Bobble- flink the boring,' says the evil Panther, but Mr. Jennings contrives even to make Satan uninterest- ing. Revealingly this was the shpw most full of school parties.

The revival of Treasure Island is the first time I have seen the. Mermaid make proper use of its stage. Even the broad window ledges are brought in for the fighting scenes and Sean Kenny's sets include a huge and realistic schooner, the island stockade and the dock tavern. At times there is a wonderful impression of distance, then again in the stockade at night of both loneliness and intimacy. Nor have I any\ reservations about the story; given Joss Ackland's performance, this is a tale about Long John Silver. We see, mercifully

little of Squire Trelawney own myself an ass, and await your orders'), andnot nearly enough of Hector Ross as Captain Smollett. My only com- plaint is that it ends without a climax, but there have been so many excitements all the way through that this is perhaps excusable.

Without going into psychology, I can only say that anyone who has forgotten Peter Pan should go to the Scala and remind themselves of it. There are some unbelievable lines in it. Peter Pan lying wounded on the Mermaid's island, `to die would be an awfully big adventure', and one of my favourite period lines when the parents quarrel, 'Be quiet, the servants will hear us'. Then there arc some curious parallels, especially over the medicine, between the Peter-Wendy household and the Darlings', and Mr. Darling's vicious un- kindness to the dog which is painful and embarrassing to watch. I had forgotten, too, that Peter tells the story of how he once tried to return to his mother and found the window barred. Except for occasional boredom with the pirates and Indians, I found the whole evening fascinating. • Alastair Sim is not the best Captain. Hook, for his long wig hides the best part of his face and blocks out much of his famous smile, but there is an excellent crocodile.