Over The Top, showing at the Belgrade Theatre until the 29th of December, is a classic, music hall romp that twists how Britain is currently commemorating the centenary. The show follows three soldiers when they are put on a special mission to rescue the Actresses’ Franchise League, who have got stuck over the top after going to entertain the troupes. Although all the pantomime and 20th century war stereotypes were present, these have a delightful twist: they are all played by women, providing a new spin on the caricatures of the time.
Over The Top is a pantomime in its purest aspects- terrible puns and groan-worthy lines that will leave you with your belly aching, embedded with the kind of patriotic, laughing-in-the-face-of-death humour that we can expect from a war comedy. However, although it does not stray from the boundaries and delights of the classic pantomime, its alternative, adult context gives it an original vibrancy as it plays with the elements that we expect from a pantomime. Rather than the chorus of ‘it’s behind you’s, the audience becomes the audience of a 1917 music hall performance, and rather than the cheery Christmas carols of Sleeping Beauty in the room next door, we have a heartfelt rendition of ‘Pack up your Troubles’. This gave the pantomime an interesting originality as it plays with our expectations and puts a mature twist on your basic Christmas panto, toying with the ideas being performed on the main stage.
As with any pantomime, the humour was at the forefront of the production- cheesy puns were embedded into the World War 1 narrative naturally, giving context to some of the best British humour which the audience seemed to revel in. This camaraderie continued through some hilarious interpretative dances, including a parachute jump and a dog fight with an inflatable German aeroplane, which was surprisingly balletic. Of these, a particularly amusing scene included the three protagonists dangling from ropes in a dance reminiscent of the ‘behind you’ dance of Sleeping Beauty. These simple yet wonderfully wrought scenes ended in spontaneous hilarity for the audience, who delighted in the joyful simplicity of scenes which rated slapstick comedy above the dry humour that British people are used to and that we normally find in theatres. However, although this was a production aimed at adults, never did the humour rely on crudity or swearing- instead, the show relied on a playful fun.
All this was kept within a tight and amusing structure where the war triumphs were embedded within the music hall acts that they explored, witty trickery invoked by an escape act becoming a scene where two of the protagonists have to escape a ticking bomb in a French café. The repetition of these music hall scenes gave the show an intelligence which is sometimes missing in the more child-friendly pantos, sparking interest in the show as it became more original at every turn and definitely cleverer than expected. These music hall scenes were the pinnacle of audience involvement, where no member was made uncomfortable with cream pies, and yet the classic techniques of clapping and sing-a-long musical repertoires were embraced. The fact that many references to Coventry itself were included made for an excellent, fourth-wall-breaking humour that included the audience and made the setting seem more relevant to the theatre that we were sitting in.
The acting also carried the show with an exuberance and excitement that seemed to make even the most ridiculous and traditional spoofs of late 20th century war dramas seem original. With quick changes and interlocking plots, the cast were incredibly in sync with one another, and this truly was an ensemble piece, where the cast worked together wonderfully to create a buoyant and fast-paced show that never failed to please. The fact that the cast were all women enabled them to throw up the jokes and create underlying mistaken identities, creating a new spin on the war whilst also commemorating the important part that women played during World War 1.
This fast paced atmosphere was exacerbated by the fact that the show was only an hour long, making it perfect for those with short attention spans. This helped to embellish the show by forcing it to be quick and witty in every second, creating smart ways to drive the story forward with energy and confidence. There were assured hands behind this production, and this was obvious from its slick and triumphant pace.
All this humour made the serious moments of the play even more poignant and heart-felt, with an ending that was suitably reflective for the centenary. The finale was a reminder of what we are commemorating and was even more impactful for the humour preceding it, as the true stories of the women involved were revealed, and what their endings were outside of the joy of the pantomime. The final songs, cyclical to the song at the start, with the bombs flying overhead, were one of the most memorable parts of the play, leaving the show on a bittersweet note that was hard to shake off after the curtain closed.
If you want a final chance to commemorate the centenary whilst enjoying some Christmas cheer with the traditional holiday panto, Over The Top is for you, playing at the Belgrade through the 29th December.