The scene is set. In time-honoured fashion, the Big Bad Wolf, having scoffed grandma and pulled her nightcap over his wicked furry ears, is about to sink his teeth into Little Red Riding Hood when . . . boom: the lights snap on and in rush a pair of police officers to drag him off to prison. Outraged, the Wolf protests that he was simply doing his narrative duty, only to be informed by his fellow prisoners — Captain Hook, the Ugly Sisters and Rumpelstiltskin — that “bad guys are out of business”.
So starts Baddies: The Musical, a delightful new production at London’s Unicorn Theatre. This imaginative show from Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler follows the broad fairytale structure of so many seasonal classics — good triumphing over evil — but niftily remixes the formula. Here the villains are rebranded as harmless by a smarmily suave Peter Pan and a saccharinely superficial Cinderella. “Once upon a time scaring kids was all the rage,” says Pan, but today, he adds, it’s all about marketing.
Wittily delivered, Purni Morell’s production walks a nice line between fun and getting its audience to think a little about what constitutes good and bad. The villains protest at stereotyping and reveal hidden depths to vanquish the fake Goodies — and it is a perverse joy to see Dean Nolan’s splendid Wolf restored to proper grandma-consuming form at the end. “We’re bad to make the others look good,” he says.
Indeed, as the Wolf observes, Baddies come into their own at Christmas. Without them, most pantomimes would have no story; British stages bristle with cackling villains and their dozy henchmen. Among London’s best rogues this year you can expect a monstrous Giant in Hackney Empire’s Jack and the Beanstalk; a scheming and imperious Stepmother in Cinderella at the Lyric Hammersmith; a sneaky King Rat in Dick Whittington at the newly refurbished Wilton’s Music Hall; and a deliberately inept Captain Hook in Peter Pan Goes Wrong at the Apollo Theatre.
But Baddies addresses an intriguing problem. Those traditional fairytales that are the bedrock of British festive theatre can be a challenge to contemporary sensibilities. We frown on defining villains by size (Giant), looks (Ugly Sisters) or species (Wolf, Rat), and on random horrors (such as grandmother-eating) and extreme acts of reprisal (some villains get pulverised). Even the so-called Goodies often engage in questionable behaviour: Aladdin benefits from a stolen lamp and the services of its enslaved genie; Jack blithely steals the Giant’s belongings; Peter Pan is a boastful egotist; Cinderella gets to marry a prince because of her shoe size.
Some contemporary shows tackle this head-on by tweaking original tales. Sally Cookson’s new version of Sleeping Beauty at Bristol Old Vic celebrates girl power by reversing the genders of the sleeper and the rescuer, while in Stratford-upon-Avon the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wendy and Peter Pan liberates Wendy from some of the more sexist assumptions of the original. Meanwhile wonder.land at the National Theatre refits Lewis Carroll’s tales of Alice for an internet generation.
Others plump for more recent stories with more complex moral messages. At London’s Old Vic, the villain is a greedy, tree-felling businessman, as playwright David Greig adapts Dr Seuss’s The Lorax for stage. In Manchester, Home goes for contemporary fantasy, Inkheart, and Leicester Curve revels in sorcery with Roald Dahl’s The Witches.
The National Theatre comes up with a peach of a morality tale for younger children in Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. Adapted for stage by Joel Horwood with delicious jazz-inflected music from Arthur Darvill, the story follows a dopey bear who stalks the jungle searching for his stolen hat. In Wils Wilson’s droll production, Marek Larwood’s Bear, with his shambling gait and doleful melting features, is beautifully matched by Steven Webb’s perky, thieving Rabbit.
It seems clear who the villain is here and many small audience members gleefully inform on him throughout. Then, suddenly, snap: the Bear exacts retribution, leaving a decidedly dead bunny on the carpet and a momentary stunned hush. Happiness is restored but this, like Baddies: The Musical and all the best festive fare, combines raucous participation with a little moral complexity to chew on.
‘Baddies: The Musical’ runs to December 24, unicorntheatre.com