"Panto party central"
Out of every show I've reviewed for London Pub Theatres, this was by far the one that most felt like I was in a pub rather than a theatre. No ordinary pub, however. The Royal Vauxhall Tavern is not only London’s longest-established LGBT venue, it’s also a Grade II listed building with pillars to die for. You’re not guaranteed a seat, which is worth taking into consideration, which leads to a bit of friendly jostling and queueing a fair while before the building opens; although I believe you can reserve seats on request. It's a mixed blessing to be able to go to the bar and gender-neutral toilets throughout the show (the Gents is currently the dressing room which, I understand, is an established panto custom at the RVT). Whilst it removed the need to queue and to wait for additional refreshment it also meant that the audience's focus wasn't always 100% on the performance, which was distracting in places.
So far this season, I've seen five 'pantos', and Rubbed! ‘Aladdin’s lamp just got camp’ is DEFINITELY a panto. It’s almost as though writers Paul Joseph and Tim Benzie drafted the script with a tick list in hand; 'oh no he isn't, oh yes he is' tick, 'he's behind you' tick, hiss boo, scary laugh (so says Rich Watkins as Abenazar) tick, song sheet (x 2) tick. You get my drift. This is really not a criticism as it grounded the evening's activities very firmly in this festive genre and the wonderful mid-19th century surroundings are perfect for a good pub panto (oh no they're not, oh yes they are). Another aspect of panto ever-present since its origins in the 16th century Italian street theatre of Commedia dell’arte, is satire – and Rubbed is certainly brimmed full of that. Brexit is an easy and very topical target for stage comment, and it is referred to in spades throughout this show. However, what is also touchingly targeted is immigration and a person’s (or pantomime character’s) leave to remain in their own homes. In the positive spirit of panto, Genie (Topsie Redfern) is saved from eviction from his/her lamp by Aladdin (Alan Hunter), the lamp’s owner and everyone enjoys a happy ending. The appearance of Margaret Thatcher and her handbag (a handbag!) gave the RVT twist to yet another panto vehicle, that of being chased by the ghosties and caught by the ghoulies and is a great example of the anarchy that peppered this performance.
As an RVT virgin, however, to me the most surprising and wonderful aspect of the evening is what amazing singers the cast members are. The moment Watkins started to sing really blew me away. Redfern is also a superb singer and my favourite is Robert McNeilly as Twankey. Give him a proper power ballad with the original words (not frivolous adult panto ones about sex and Glasgow) and he'd give the likes of Sam Smith a real run for his money. To RVT panto regulars, however, who are used to seeing Faye Reeves, the Slave and Spirit of the Ring, as well as the rest of the cast in its seasonal offerings, I’m sure the amazing quality of the vocals is one of the reasons they buy tickets for the show. I was especially astounded by Reeves’ excellent pastiche of Shirley Bassey, which was completely unexpected; particularly as, until this moment, I’d felt that she’d not held her own amongst the huge personalities of the drag artistes. Saying that, she handled the hecklers well; something exclusive to pantos in pubs, I suspect.
In a nutshell, Rubbed is like nothing else I’ve seen before and is absolutely something I’d like to see again. The RVT is currently very Christmassy and is a great place to celebrate the festivities with a mate or many and a large drink in your hand.
Writers: Paul Joseph and Tim Benzie
Producer: Catia Ciarico on behalf of the RVT
Director: Tim McArthur
Musical director: Aaron Clingham
Costumes: Bourgeoisie of Cut A Bitch Designs
Set design: Aaron Cooke
Technical director: Lex Kosanke
Stage manager: Lysander Dove
Reviewer Deborah Jeffries is a PhD Researcher at the University of East London and Rose Bruford College. Her thesis is entitled ‘Legitimising the Victorian Music Hall’, and it contests the notion of legitimate versus illegitimate theatre. It also investigates theatre architecture, purpose and licensing. She has worked for Hoxton Hall and Wilton’s - two of the UK’s four operational Victorian music halls, as well as the more modern incarnation, Brick Lane Music Hall. Her MA in Drama from Goldsmiths explores the difference between music hall and variety theatre, and the place of each genre in modern popular culture. She has reviewed music and theatre across the UK for over 30 years.