We’re well into January now and all the pantomimes have finished for the season. Let’s have a big “aahhhhh”. When did the panto season become so short? When I were a nipper, the Palladium panto used to carry on until at least February, possibly even March if I remember rightly. Mind you, they were big variety shows, with enormous star names. The first one I went to was Jack and The Beanstalk, with Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack and Arthur Askey as the Dame. That was in 1968. The 1970/1 panto was Aladdin, with Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, and Terry Scott. In 1972 it was Cinderella with Ronnie Corbett as Buttons, Terry Scott and Alfred Marks as the Ugly Sisters and Clodagh Rodgers as Cinders. Big names that carried big shows, that big audiences wanted to see. But now that we’re in the second week of January 2013, this Cinderella has already packed up her crystal slipper and gone to ground for eleven months.
Nevertheless, the panto tradition, it seems to me, is still doing amazingly well. Virtually every theatre in the country, outside the West End, has an annual pantomime. A source of bemusement to overseas visitors, this essentially British form of entertainment allows you to do all those naughty things that you’re not normally allowed to do in a theatre. The more rules it breaks, the more it conforms to the tradition. The older I get, the more I love them, and it’s an enormous pleasure to have discovered one of the country’s best places for panto, the Sheffield Lyceum.
We went last year, for the first time, and saw their Sleeping Beauty. There would be no question we would book again for this year – and I am sure we will book for next Christmas too. At the heart of the Sheffield panto, is their favourite pantoiste (nothing to do with Sheffield by the way, he’s from Essex) Damian Williams. This is his fifth consecutive season doing the Sheffield panto and he’s confirmed to be “daming” again for the sixth time in Jack and The Beanstalk next December. He’s just such a breath of joy. Loud, cheeky, back-chatting, engaging, not afraid to make an idiot of himself, and very very funny, I don’t know of any performer who can turn his hand to this form of entertainment with such fresh gusto.
Of course it really helps that Paul Hendy’s script, like last year’s, is so funny, and that the production is full of colour, great costumes, and a terrific band – who were responsible for one of the funniest moments too, when they vocalised the Lone Ranger theme. It seemed like a very happy company, and their on-stage ease with each other really helped the transfer of excitement and joy to the audience.
Our Prince Charming was Jonathan Ansell, an ex-member of G4, who shot to fame on X-Factor. I’d not heard of him before – indeed I thought G4 was some kind of international conference – but the young lady sat to my right was clearly a fan. Every time he came on she preened with pleasure, laughed at his lines, swooned at his singing and clapped really really hard so her hands must have stung. It’s true, he has a great voice and a bright appeal to make all the ladies, and a few of the gentlemen, tingle with delight.
Sue Devaney was the Fairy Godmother, flying in from the wings, acting as a narrator but also popping up here and there in the story too. She used her Lancashire accent to great comic effect and, like the best Fairy Godmothers, could be both graceful and cackhanded. Absolutely perfect for the top of the tree.
Dandini was Ben Faulks, or, as Damian Williams constantly referred to him, CBeebies’ Ben Faulks – again there’s no way I would know him from TV – but he was bright and chirpy and a good stooge to Mr Williams and the Prince. Kate Quinnell was a very attractive Cinderella, wide-eyed and eager to please her horrid sisters, and occasionally showing flashes of a wicked sense of humour during those slightly wayward moments towards the end of a run – useful for when the scenery didn’t fall into place properly in one scene. Her delightful singing was equal to Mr Ansell’s and they made a great pair together. Talking of which, Ian Smith and Michael J Batchelor were extremely good and extremely horrible Ugly Sisters, daubed in grotesque make-up and wearing wonderfully ghastly fashion creations. David Westbrook was a surprisingly sprightly and cheeky Baron Hardup and I particularly loved the scene where he emerged as a Carmen Miranda backing dancer.
The dancing villagers were all very entertaining and each brought their own personality to the ensemble routines – I was very pleased to see, amongst their number, Lee Bridgman, who we enjoyed very much in TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, one of the best TV reality/talent shows IMHO.
But there’s no doubt the show belongs to Damian Williams. Whenever he’s onstage the energy sharpens and the laughter doubles. Very much a 21st century Tommy Cooper, he handles the usual panto scenes so deftly and wonderfully – like the “ghosts behind you” scene, where, as usual, he adopts the identity of a Sheffield icon – this time Jessica Ennis, which I have to say was one of the funniest visual images I have seen for a very long time. It was made even funnier in the matinee we saw as the bench they were sat on upended and sent Crucibella flying onto her backside and struggling to regain composure. Mr Williams also did an excellent Bruce Forsyth Strictly parody with Miss “Twice Daly” Devaney, a great sequence with Mr Faulks as they made a sketch out of the name of every board game under the sun; and, in the midst of some brilliant one-liners throughout the show, I loved his riposte when Cinderella said she loved him, but as a brother – “we could move to Norfolk?”
The Sheffield panto is something to look forward to throughout the whole year – make it a Christmas priority!