Plano — Each holiday season, Theatre Britain gifts the Dallas-Fort Worth audience with its unique (at least for North Texas) form of particularly British holiday cheer: the panto. For the uninitiated to the genre, pantos take a familiar story and mix it up with corny jokes, offbeat characters, cross-dressing, a ghost, a black-light scene and the opportunity for the crowd to boo, hiss, sing and otherwise interact with the performers.
This year’s offering, King Arthur, directed by Sue Birch, is a mixed blessing, with adept and charming actors hampered by a lackluster retelling of the legend that teases the audience in the worst way—we get told over and over, for instance, about the upcoming Tournament of Poses, and then never get to see the danged tournament. That comes with tuneless music (music by Aaron Fryklund, lyrics by Jackie Mellor-Guin, who also wrote the panto). Only one song, “Poofy the Tragic Dragon,” is memorable, and I suspect I liked that one mostly because I’d fallen in love with its title character, a winsome little fireless dragon portrayed with delicious spirit by Robin Clayton.
The story focuses on Arthur as a young man, with little of that whole Guinevere-Lancelot-Arthur love triangle to muddy things up. Rather, playwright Mellor-Guin spotlights Arthur’s coming of age and kingliness, played out as a battle between the good force of Merlin (the impressive Joey Dietz) and the evil of Morgana Le Fey (a cackling good Jennifer Stoneking).
For grins along the way, there’s hilarious Kaye, Arthur’s adoptive brother, winningly portrayed by Michael Speck, and the Dame (always an over-the-top character played by a man), Nanny Chit Chat, played with verve and overt naughtiness by Ivan Jones (who perhaps could use a touch less lipstick; it seemed to keep getting on his teeth and making his words slur). Emmalyn Miron makes a quivering, unspoiled and girlish Guinevere, and Jake Shanahan practices his excellent one-eyebrow-raise technique as the handsome, clueless Lancelot. As Arthur, Dixie Carroll (the Principal Boy in a panto is traditionally played by a woman) exudes warmth and a youthful nobility that make her perfect for the part.
The stars of the show, though, are the aforementioned Poofy (Clayton), who can’t breathe fire but makes up for it in strangled snorts and effervescent spitting, and Soggyanna, the Lady of the Lake, who’s a bit miffed about all that water, for heaven’s sake, and is played with serious female-itude by Charli Armstrong. You almost expect her to start snapping her fingers and singing “Single Ladies” with Poofy as backup at any moment.
Despite its drawbacks, this Arthur has enough going for it to keep youngsters and patient adults happy. (Although it must be said: If you’re going to bring children, make sure they’re old enough to sit still for an hour-and-a-half without disrupting the audience members around them.) The sets by Darryl P. Clement and costumes by Tory Padden are lovely, especially Poofy’s costume, which appears to have been attacked by a Bedazzler—and I mean that in a good way.