I know! How about some more theatre and dance memories? November 2005 to February 2006

  1. Mark Morris Dance Group – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 16th November 2005

Billed as their 25th Anniversary UK tour, the Mark Morris Dance Group swung into High Wycombe with their usual blaze of glory, and an enjoyable programme that started with Somebody’s Coming to See Me Tonight, set to songs by Stephen Foster; then All Fours, with music by Bela Bartok; followed by Candleflowerdance, set to Stravinsky’s Serenade in A, and finally Grand Duo with music by Lou Harrison. As always, all the dances were choreographed by Mark Morris – who, sadly, wasn’t one of the dancers this time. Hugely entertaining.

  1. Glorious – Duchess Theatre, London, 19th November 2005

Peter Quilter’s wonderful comedy about the singing sensation Florence Foster Jenkins – a legend in her own lunchtime – given a terrific central performance by Maureen Lipman as the soprano in extremis, with excellent support from William Oxborrow and Barrie Ingham. Very funny; but its real strength is in how it manages to tell her story without being unkind. A great show.

  1. Nabucco – Latvian National Opera at the Opera House, Riga, Latvia, 10th December 2005

We went to Riga for a long weekend and there took in a typically ex-Soviet evening at the Opera –  Verdi’s Nabucco (or Nabuko as it is in Latvian) performed by the Latvian National Opera. A very elegant, if snowy, experience! They did a grand job.

  1. Heroes – Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 28th December 2005

Gerald Sibleyras’ superb one-act comedy was given a feisty translation by Tom Stoppard and a terrific set of performances from a triumvirate of acting legends – Richard Griffiths, John Hurt and Ken Stott. Set in a French military hospital in 1959, this one act play delves into the men’s pasts to reveal their true characters – and it was beautifully done throughout.

  1. Scrooge – London Palladium, 31st December 2005

For a New Year’s Eve treat we took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle out to see Scrooge – primarily because she was a huge Tommy Steele fan; this was to be her final visit to her much loved London Palladium. The show itself was pretty enjoyable – if I say it was a very lively, colourful and undemanding entertainment, you’ll get my drift. Mr Steele – aged approx. 69 then was still a very nimble figure on the stage! Fun to see Hi de Hi‘s Barry Howard as Jacob Marley, and favourite performer of the future, Alex Gaumond in some minor roles.

  1. Aladdin – Old Vic, London, 8th January 2006

A very hot ticket that Christmas, we adored Sean Matthias’ production of Aladdin for the Old Vic starring Ian McKellen as Widow Twankey – all the country wanted to see how he’d take on that role, and the answer is, with delicious relish. Absolutely hilarious – and pretty filthy if I remember rightly. Roger Allam was a fabulously wicked Abbanazar, and Frances Barber also gave us her Dim Sum. I think it was this show that got us back hooked into pantos in the future.

  1. Mammals – Oxford Playhouse, 20th January 2006

We probably didn’t realise at the time quite how good a cast this touring production of Amelia Bullmore’s rather savage comedy boasted. Mark Bonnar, Anna Chancellor, Daniel Ryan and Niamh Cusack led the show, which concerned a marriage in crisis after a confession of infidelity. Great stuff.

  1. Simply Ballroom – Milton Keynes Theatre, February 2006

Moving over a return visit to see The Woman in Black at the Fortune Theatre, which was still going great guns, our next show was Strictly Ballroom at Milton Keynes – a touring show that was probably among the first of dozens of Strictly Come Dancing spin-offs that have cavorted over our stages ever since. Hosted by Lionel Blair, this was a rather formal and staid show that took different types of ballroom dance one by one and performed them in an almost educational manner. I felt it took a lot of the joy out of dance, and was quite a long evening!

  1. Improbable Fiction – Oxford Playhouse, 17th February 2006

I was very excited to be seeing Alan Ayckbourn’s latest comedy, set against the imaginations of those present at a writer’s group meeting. The first act laid the ground in a gently amusing way; and then the second act goes off in an extraordinary flight of fancy. If you “get” this play, then you “get” it. I didn’t “get” it at all; in fact, it’s the one and only time I’ve ever hated (yes, it was that strong a reaction) an Ayckbourn play.

  1. The Seasons/Carmina Burana – Birmingham Royal Ballet at the Birmingham Hippodrome, 25th February 2006

The Seasons was a sequence of dances choreographed by David Bintley to the music of Verdi, and was a beautiful half hour of classic and classical ballet.

After the interval we loved Bintley’s Carmina Burana, set to Carl Orff’s superb music – which we had already seen on TV and couldn’t wait to see live; and it delivered everything it promised. One of the most exciting pieces of contemporary dance I’ve ever seen. Loved every minute of it.

Theatre Memories – What I Learned from my First Ten Shows – 1967 to 1971

Greetings gentle reader, and welcome to what could be an enormously entertaining retro odyssey of all the shows I’ve seen over the years, or it could turn out to be some self-indulgent nonsense to pass the lockdown months – only time will tell. So here’s a reminiscence of the first ten professional shows that I’ve seen.

  1. Showtime – Pavilion Theatre, Bournemouth, June 1967.

imageimage(2)Whilst on our annual family week-long summer holiday, which in 1967 was in Bournemouth, my parents took me to see Showtime which starred Des O’Connor and Kenneth McKellar. As a 7-year-old, I have very few memories of the show, but I do remember a sequence where Des O’Connor asked us all if anyone from the audience wanted to join him on stage – there was a brief silence and I remember him saying “come on, speak to Desmond” and just as I was wondering whether I could pluck up the courage to stand up, Jack Douglas emerged from the audience in his character as Alf Ippitittimus (how do you spell that? Two Ips, a Pippi and a Tittimus, which isn’t actually correct but was his catchphrase) and I realised that it was a set-up. That was my first lesson of theatre – things are not always as they seem. It took until One Man Two Guvnors for that art to be perfected!


I also learned that sitting at the back of a theatre isn’t as much fun as sitting at the front. We sat at the back because my dad wanted to keep drinking pints through the show, much to my mother’s fury. If you drank, you had to sit at the back. If you were pure in mind and spirit, you could sit at the front. Funny old rules.

Some great other shows on that summer in Bournemouth by the way, according to the adverts in the programme.

  1. Jack and The Beanstalk – London Palladium, January 1 1969

image(6)Not 100% certain of the date but it’s near enough. My first London show, my first pantomime, and my first real sense of the excitement and buzz that theatre can offer – that’s what I learned from this show. I went with my mother because, as I was to discover over the coming decades, the London Palladium was probably her favourite place on Earth and she wanted me to start at the top! Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack, Arthur Askey as the Dame (mother couldn’t stand him), and also the brilliant Charlie Cairoli as the leader of the Strolling Clowns.

My main memory of this show is actually standing outside the Palladium amongst the throngs of excited people who knew they were in for a treat – or had just experienced a treat, because I can’t remember if it was before or after the show. I was only 8, after all. But I also remember Jimmy Tarbuck’s first entrance on stage, halfway through the boys and girls of the Pamela Devis Dancers doing the opening number, which was their version of Manfred Mann’s My Name is Jack – pantos always have played with the pop songs of the day. I think I was just tingling with excitement.


  1. Oh! Clarence! – Lyric Theatre, London, January 8 1969.

image(39)A week after Jack and the Beanstalk, Mum took me back into London to see a matinee of Oh! Clarence!, a comedy by John Chapman based on Blandings Castle and other Lord Emsworth stories by P G Wodehouse. What I learned from this production is Look After Your Programme. I left it on the train coming home and was UTTERLY FURIOUS WITH MYSELF for doing so. And in fact, I STILL AM! Fortunately I tracked down a copy of the text which had the full cast details and even a couple of photos, so all is not lost.

image(40)This had, for 1969, a stunning cast. Jon Pertwee, Peggy Mount, Ealing comedy hero Naunton Wayne and stage farceur par excellence, Robertson Hare, plus some great supporting names. My only vague memories of the play are that Jon Pertwee spent the whole time in great pain (acting, obviously) and that Peggy Mount played her usual “dragon” character. I made a note at the time that there was a hilarious bedroom scene, although I’m sure the 8-year-old me didn’t understand all the jokes.

image(41)The other major significance this production has for me was that it was the first time that I took my autograph book to the stage door after the show came down. With the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to watch out for me, I got the autographs of Jon Pertwee (who spent the whole time when he was writing in my book talking to someone else); Austin Trevor – the first actor to play Hercule Poirot on film in the 1930s – who was a very kindly and courteous gentleman to us both; and Harry Roy, the famous bandleader, because, for some strange reason, this production had a totally unnecessary band in the orchestra pit. Just because they could, I guess. It was so exciting meeting these famous people that I became fairly hooked on autograph collecting, as you’ll see over the next few blog posts!

  1. Charlie Girl – Adelphi Theatre, London, August 1969.

My first musical, this production taught me four things. 1) with clever scenery, you can make it look as though the theatre has been built in order to accommodate the production – as I did, until my mother put me right. More importantly, 2) I learned how going to the theatre can be a social experience, as there were five of us at this performance: me, my parents, and my Nan and Grandad. I have vague recollections of a meal before the show, maybe coffee afterwards (no drinks, as kids were not allowed in pubs in 1969!)

Thirdly, that there is such a thing as the London Cast Album. We didn’t buy it, but we did buy a 45 rpm single (remember them?) with two of the main songs – Liverpool, and the title track Charlie Girl. So you could have a memory of the music at home after the show. What a discovery! And finally, that there was also an entity called the Souvenir Brochure that you could buy in addition to the programme. Looking back on it now, the Charlie Girl Picture Book is very amateurishly presented and photographed – but it offers some unique pictorial memories of the show. I even got a badge, so they were pretty well mastering the art of merchandise!

Another stunningly good cast: Dame Anna Neagle, Gerry Marsden, Derek Nimmo, plus some brilliant supporting cast. The story wasn’t up to much – would Charlie marry Joe or Jack? That’s about it. The only moment of dialogue I remember clearly was when Derek Nimmo, as the Man from the Football Pools, came to tell Gerry Marsden as Joe that he’d won a fortune. He came on stage with a fistful of celebratory balloons. Gerry Marsden loudly deflated them, to which Derek Nimmo, in that uniquely posh hurt accent of his, moaned You’ve Burst My Balloons! Funny what you remember. It was a great show.

Autograph collecting was fun. We waited ages for Derek Nimmo to come out, and eventually the stage door keeper had to ring down to ask him to come up. He was dressed in Dressing Gown and Wellington Boots, apologising that he was rehearsing a scene from Oh Brother, his TV show of the time. Anna Neagle came out looking very glamorous, and was met in a taxi by her husband, the film producer Herbert Wilcox. Mum told me to get his autograph too because he was equally famous, but being a purist, and as he wasn’t in the show, I didn’t.


  1. There’s A Girl in my Soup – Comedy Theatre, London, December 1969.

image(52)This long-running comedy was my next show – it was already in its fourth year and had a great reputation – it became London’s longest running comedy until its run was surpassed by No Sex Please We’re British. Basically, a TV chef fancies himself as a lady-killer (this was the Swinging Sixties after all) but he meets his match in the character of Marion and they both tame each other down. I didn’t see a panto this Christmas season, but I think this was meant to replace it. Again, I went with Mum, Dad, Nan and Grandad.

image(53)What this production taught me was something that’s only recently started to become untrue, but for many years was undeniable. I remember a moment when I laughed a lot at a very funny scene, and I glanced at my watch – and it said 10.15pm. And I remember thinking that every day (apart from Sundays), at 10.15pm, other audiences would be enjoying that very same hilarious moment. It was like a realisation that I would have something in common with future audiences. Furthermore, it led to a sadder thought; which was that when the show finally closed, as it inevitably would, no one would ever share that funny moment at 10.15 ever again. Unlike a film, once a show closes, it closes – and you can never get it back again. Not quite the same today with the filmed versions of NT and RSC shows appearing regularly at your local cinema. But at the time, that sadness that you can’t recapture a live performance really rather upset me! Sensitive little child!

The cast was headed by Peter Byrne, famous at the time for his work on Dixon of Dock Green, and Australian actress Karen Kessey, who was lovely at the Stage Door. Also in the cast was Janet Hargreaves, who would later go on to infamous success as Rosemary Hunter in Crossroads, and that amazing TV blooper where she tries to shoot her husband but the gun clicks off too early. I enjoyed the show a lot; so much so that when a revival came around in 1996 I insisted that we went to see it – and it had dated so badly that it was excruciating.

  1. She’s Done it Again – Garrick Theatre, London, January 14 1970

image(62)Bookending the other end of school Christmas holidays, I went with Mum to see this Brian Rix farce set in a hotel overrun with babies. An excellent cast, that also starred Leo Franklyn, Robert Dorning, Derek Royle and Michael Kilgarriff. It was a classic Rix affair, with a couple of getting caught with his trousers down moments; you can see a wonderful scene below where the Bishop of Upton (a very unhappy looking Anthony Sharp) discovered the Revd Hubert (Mr Rix) in such an embarrassing position with Sylvia, played by the beautiful Margaret Nolan.

image(56)I learned two things from this production. One was that a play can be part of a long tradition of similar productions, as the Souvenir Brochure for his play showed photos and details of all the Brian Rix farces going right back to Reluctant Heroes in 1950. It made me really want to see all the earlier productions, which, of course, was impossible – although I do think there was a TV production of Let Sleeping Wives Lie, which would be enormous fun to track down.

The other thing I learned was how lucky I was. We saw a matinee (I was 9 by this stage) and I think the next day was the first day of the new term, so I couldn’t be late to bed. After the show we went to the Stage Door to get autographs – in those days you could walk all the way down the alleyway to the side of the Garrick to get to the Stage Door; today it’s boarded off at street level. We met a lot of the cast coming out of the theatre – Margaret Nolan was particularly kind and lovely to me. But where was Mr Rix? The Stage Door Keeper rang down for us. Mr Rix had a bit of a sore throat and was saving his voice for the evening performance, but he came upstairs in his dressing gown all the same. And then, at the crucial moment, my pen ran out of ink! So Mr Rix very kindly invited me down to his dressing room, to use a pen down there! I felt that was such a privilege. I was really surprised to discover that such a star actually shared a dressing room – with Anthony Sharp, as it happens. He was incredibly kind and friendly and it really made my day.

  1. The Show Inn – Pier Theatre, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, July 1970.

image(63)For our summer holiday in 1970, the family went to Shanklin, Isle of Wight, for a week, and whilst there we saw a typical end-of-the-pier show, The Show Inn. I remember very little of this at all, but I see that my programme has the autographs of three of the performers – Bernie Landy, Melody Scott, and Jason Darnel, who, at the age of 84 still maintains a website with reminiscences of all the shows he appeared in. But that’s about all I remember of this show. I’m sure I enjoyed it.

  1. Blithe Spirit – Globe Theatre, London, November 1970.

image(67)I remember really looking forward to seeing this show, not only because it had such a great cast, but also because I was fascinated by its name. Charles Condomine was played by Patrick Cargill – whom I knew from TV’s Father Dear Father, Ruth was Ursula Howells, Elvira was Amanda Reiss, and Madame Arcati was Beryl Reid. I absolutely loved it; it’s still one of my favourite plays, and I missed out seeing this year’s production with Jennifer Saunders as Madame A because of the dreaded Covid 19. I made at the time though, that it was a rotten audience who didn’t seem to enjoy the show.

Fascinating how trendy it was to be photographed smoking in those days!

Everyone was pleasant and kind at the Stage Door, but I have two particular memories of that experience; when I got Beryl Reid’s autograph, there was another lady wanting to meet her, and it turned out she was someone who went to school with Ms Reid and they hadn’t met since they left school – and it was a joyful reunion for the pair of them. The other thing I remember was that after we’d met Amanda Reiss, she left the theatre and headed straight for the local butchers. So what I learned from that production was that Stars Have To Go Food Shopping Too.


  1. Aladdin – London Palladium, February 1971.

image(72)My second ever panto, and my second visit to the Palladium. A lavish and hilarious production with yet another superb cast – Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, Alfred Marks, Terry Scott, Sheila Burnette and Basil Brush. A particularly brilliant scene featured Terry Scott, who played Widow Twankey, being caught on the Magic Carpet as it (apparently) soared over cities and landscapes, looping the loop and doing all sorts of perilous pranks – the comic timing, combined with the special effects, made it something I remember to this day.

image(73)What I learned from this experience is if you don’t ask you don’t get. My mother had written to the Palladium weeks before we went, asking if it would be possible to meet Basil Brush before the show – he was always a favourite of mine, and in fact my parents loved him too. To our surprise he wrote back, and invited us to call round at the Stage Door before the show. So we did. And we met Mr Ivor, who was the Original Voice of Basil, who took us into his dressing room, showed me how the puppet worked (Ooops – spoiler! Sorry) and we had a lovely chat. Would you like to go on the Palladium stage? he asked us. image(74)Mother was even more keen than I was. So he took us through corridors on to the stage, showed us how the famous revolving mechanism worked, and we had an absolutely brilliant chat. Whilst we were backstage I also bumped into Leslie Crowther, who signed my autograph book and was absolutely charming and friendly – see you on stage, were his parting words. By this stage I thought that everything about the theatre is magic. But that’s self-evident, no?

  1. The Mousetrap – Ambassadors Theatre, London, 13th April 1971.

image(79)image(80)Now in its 19th Year, proclaims the programme – and at the time of Lockdown, it’s in its 68th year! So it’s fair to say it’s been a reasonably successful production. A hokey old thriller, but, if you’re a theatre buff, it’s compulsory viewing. I enjoyed this so much, being a Christie fan even in those youthful days. I thought the murderer was Mr Paravicini, Mum thought it was Mollie Ralston. I’m not going to tell you if either of us was right! I do remember quite a few thrills and chills from the production, which, you have to accept, is a classic.

The Mousetrap has always regularly changed cast, and our cast had Carol Marsh as Mollie – she of the landmark TV play Cathy Come Home – who was incredibly friendly and chatty with us – Bee Duffell as Mrs Boyle, Steve Plytas (Fawlty Towers’ irascible and lovelorn chef, Kurt) as Paravicini, and Kevan Sheehan as Sgt Trotter, who had sung on the Music for Pleasure album of Doctor Dolittle which I played a lot at the time.

See you tomorrow for another bunch of holiday snaps – Australia in 1985!

Review – Aladdin – Adventures in the East, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 12th December 2018

AladdinIt’s a tall order – but also a vitally important one – to get the 3rd Year Acting Students to cast away all thought of serious theatre and throw themselves into the panto vibe. After all, it’s a regular source of fruitful employment! I believe last year’s group were the first to be asked to take on such a task when they performed Cinderella to a pack of excitable primary schoolkids. This year I had the pleasure of watching the new students perform Aladdin to more than 70 happy youngsters from Castle Academy, and judging by the kids’ reactions (which has to be your best gauge) they absolutely nailed it.

Amber KingIn fact, the biggest challenge the cast had was trying to work out how to get themselves comfortably back on script to continue with the show rather than allowing themselves to get lost in the children’s enthusiastic responses. That requires some strong stage authority, which I guess comes with experience, but for the most part they managed to get us back on track with the show whilst still allowing that all-important audience participation, without which panto is merely some adults playing dressing up and silly sods.

Samantha TurnerIt’s a brisk, funny script, with just the right amount of stock panto routines to please first-time theatregoers and old reprobates like myself. Total confession time – I am a complete sucker for a panto. I don’t care if it’s only the boys and girls who are meant to shout back at the stage, I can’t resist joining in without any sense of embarrassment at all (I leave the embarrassment to those around me).

Tonia ToselandThis was my first opportunity to see this cast of students at work and I was tremendously impressed. The University has a reputation of creating absolutely first class actors and, from this performance, my initial reaction is not only that that reputation is safe for at least another year but also that there isn’t one weak link in the whole cast. They all came across as extremely likeable (perhaps not Abanazar, but then he’s not meant to be!) with some great instincts for comedy and some excellent stage presence. I can’t pick out only the good names because everyone is good. However, there are some really impressive aspects and performances that I’d like to mention.

Daniel HuberyAmber King’s Sheherazade takes instant control of the show with her dynamic opening appearance, whisking us away to that magical land where panto is real. Samantha Turner is superb as Aladdin, with all that fresh-faced, innocent but impish enthusiasm required of a panto principal boy; and, as his/her love interest, Tonia Toseland is perfect as a dazzling Princess Jasmine, a heart full of goodness cutting a romantic dash as they both navigate their journey on their flying carpet (which I thought was remarkably effective!)

Nafetalai TuifuaOf course, there’s just as much comedy as romance (if not more) and I loved the three-part genie played by Beth Hâf Jones, Abi Cameron and Hannah Bacon in their myriad regional accents and with some enjoyable comic business. Sultan Daniel Hubery and Sultana Katie Glenn made a highly entertaining couple; I could see Ms Glenn as a dark tragedienne in some gloom-filled costume drama, whereas I think Mr Hubery would be a brilliant Baron Hardup! Kieran Jones had the joint pleasure and challenge of giving us his Twankey en travestie; a neat blend of the faux feminine and the wotcher mate that worked very well. Thomas van Langenberg oozed slippery wickedness as the evil Abanazar, and, in a minor role, I did enjoy Tyler Reece’s hard-nosed bouncer guard watching us all with his beady eye.

Tyler ReeceBut for me the star of the show was Nafetalai Tuifua as the irrepressible Wishee Washee; he really got under the panto veneer to become the truly playful pal with whom all the kids in the audience would want to be best buddies. I laughed along with all his enthusiasm, and when he proposed to Soapy Sophie (sorry, spoilers) I genuinely felt an emotional pull. Above all, he made me forget that I was an adult, which I reckon is quite a rare gift.

Great promise from this likeable young cast – I look forward to seeing them perform in more shows during the course of the year!

Review – Aladdin, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December 2017

AladdinGreetings, gentle reader, and may I be among (probably) the last to wish you a Happy New Year. Now that the chocs are eaten and the decs are down (mine aren’t but will be soon) it’s that time of year when I have to play catch-up reviewer of all the shows we saw around the Christmas period, some of which have now closed, so there’s nothing I can say that might convince you to see them or otherwise – because it’s too late!

Aladdin4One such production was this year’s Qdos Entertainment pantomime at the Royal and Derngate, Aladdin, with its happy promotional poster of Paul Nicholas, Jaymi Hensley and Sheila Ferguson all smiling cheerily and Kev Orkian looking defiantly cheeky. Already you know it’s going to be everything you could wish for in a panto. Gosh, it even says that on the front cover of the programme. Aladdin7Last year we didn’t see the Royal and Derngate’s Jack and the Beanstalk because the promotional photo showed Simon Webbe looking grumpy, and my brain got the message this won’t be fun. There’s a lot of competition for the panto pound, and the promo has got to be right to get the audience behind it. That wasn’t; but this was. Anyway, it had Sheila Ferguson in it, so of course I was going to see it.

Aladdin6The theatre had a great vibe of happy expectation and there’s no doubt the whole audience had a great time. The sets were lively, colourful and fun, with a good mix of cartoony images as well as the more sophisticated special effects that panto audiences now expect. Do you wave at Aladdin as he rides his magic carpet out into the audience? Of course you do. Phil Dennis’ compact little band, tucked away in one of the side boxes, gave us more oomph than only three guys had any right to, and Alan Burkitt’s enjoyable choreography had just about enough West End feel to it to make all the musical numbers go with a swing.

Aladdin2As always with a panto there were a couple of standard routines that brought the house down. I loved the tongue-twisting scene where Kev Orkian’s Wishee Washee had to act as a go-between relating the linguistic horrors of the short-sleeved shirt shortage between Darren Machin’s Widow Twankey and Paul Nicholas’ Abanazar. However, the best for me was when Wishee, realising that everyone else was frozen in time, repositioned the dancers, Aladdin3the Emperor, the Princess and Widow Twankey into contorted positions to make a funny effect by pushing the last one over. When Wishee asked the boys and girls whether or not he should kiss the defenceless Princess, nearly all of them shouted back NO! which made my go on my son! sound a bit pervy, so apologies if you were offended. Mr Orkian’s teasing the cast – especially dancer Serge and the precariously balancing Aladdin9Emperor Dom Hartley-Harris, was hilarious. One thing that really was noticeable – how they don’t waste time falling in love in Pantoland. Mr Harley-Harris had the hots for Widow Twankey quicker than a gulp of Peking Tea, and as for Zoe George’s Princess Jasmine consenting to be Jaymi Hensley’s Aladdin’s gf… well, all I can say is she must be a Union J fan.

Aladdin1It was unusual, but very rewarding, to see a panto that was sung so well. Mr Hensley and Ms George’s duets were both touching and powerful; but with leads Paul Nicholas and Sheila Ferguson you knew you were going to be in for a musical treat. With a few unsurprising Marigold Hotel references between them, they really lit up the stage. Mr Nicholas still has that charismatic twinkle in his eye even if you can barely see it for his turban. Anyone hoping for a reprise of Dancing with the Captain (just me then?) would have been disappointed, Aladdin5but vocally he’s still got it and puts real characterisation and mischief into his songs. Ms Ferguson is still as pitch perfect as ever, with terrific renditions of River Deep Mountain High and the Three Degrees’ own Year of Decision, with which she closed the first half. Having had the pleasure of interviewing her a few years ago for a Eurovision radio programme (and yes, I know, she never did Eurovision) she told me how much she hated that song. Sign of a real trouper then!

It was a perfect way of starting our Christmas week and everyone went home buzzing. A first-class production of an excellent panto!

Review – Aladdin, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2016

AladdinEvery year Mrs Chrisparkle and I take Lady Duncansby and her butler, Sir William, for a panto and musical weekend in Sheffield. We stay overnight (usually at the Mercure, if their rates are reasonable), do lunch, do dinner, do drinkies, star-watch in the Crucible Corner after the evening show then end up in the Mercure bar until the wee small hours. It’s a splendid tradition and we love it.

Damian WilliamsWe discovered the Sheffield Lyceum panto five years ago and wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s unlike any other panto I know, primarily because it always stars Damian Williams as the dame, and you can’t get a more perfect casting anywhere. He does have a tendency to dominate the show, but that’s part of the fun. The Lyceum panto always books up early in the year, and the audience is always filled with children transfixed with glee in a way you rarely see.

Chris GascoyneThere are some staples from previous pantos that always get a re-run. It wouldn’t be a Lyceum panto without the Lyceum bench, featuring, in this show, Widow Twankey, Wishee Washee and PC Pongo, sitting on it to sing a super fast version of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, whilst Egyptian mummies steal in behind them, so that we can all shout out “they’re behind you!” “What? A mummy? Is there? Well, we’ll have to do it again then won’t we!” It’s a script we all know and love and the audience plays along in full voice. It wouldn’t be a Lyceum panto without a patter gag sketch – in the past we’ve seen them do puns on singers and groups, and perfumes and aftershaves – this year it was about newspapers and magazines, very cleverly weaving publication names into a running gag which, amongst other things, gave Twankey plenty of opportunity to tease Wishee about his Gay Times.

Hilary O'NeilI don’t think we got an Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is sequence this year; but we did get Twankey, Wishee and Pongo doing the Twelve Days of Christmas, where of course the stage gets messier and messier as Pongo is subjected to (at least) 60 accurately-chucked custard pies. This year, on the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve super soakers. How thoughtful of my true love. Absolutely no one in the stalls was safe. We were in the middle of Row P – you would have thought that was far enough away from the stage to stay dry. Not a bit of it. Wishee hurtled up the right aisle splashing and soaking as he went and we all copped a complete faceful of water. Several times. Fortunately, it was very funny. I’m not known for my sense of humour when it comes to being soaked; but, through the sheer cheekiness of the performers and the resigned knowledge that we were sitting ducks, it really worked.

Wishee, Pongo and TwankeyThe main supporting cast brought with them some more running gags simply by virtue of who they were or who they were playing. Chris Gascoyne – better known for playing Peter Barlow in Coronation Street, apparently, we don’t watch it – played a hammy wannabe Shakespearian actor type of Abanazar, whose seriousness and pomposity was permanently punctured by everyone opening every conversation with him with a surprised “hello, Peter!” much to his fury. A simple device, but very funny. Hilary O’Neil (excellent in Jack and the Beanstalk in Northampton a few years ago) played the Spirit of the Ring, marking each entry with yet another very funny impersonation, so that you never quite knew who she would come on as next. Alex Winters (a CBeebies presenter not known to us!) played Wishee Washee with enthusiasm but primarily acting as “friend to the children in the audience” and straight man to Damian Williams. Eddie Elliott played the Genie as an over-the-top wise-cracking dude straight out of some American reality show – and very funny he was too. Among the rest of the cast, Jonathan Halliwell was a youthful and exuberant Aladdin, and James Mitchell a much put-upon and long-suffering Pongo. But all the cast gave great support with their singing and dancing.

Jonathan HalliwellHowever, there is a however. For some reason, that I’ve not been able to fathom, this wasn’t quite as enjoyable as previous Lyceum pantomimes. It may be that the script was not quite as funny as usual; it may be that some of the characterisation wasn’t quite as spot-on as on previous occasions. It may be (I really hope not) that we have got a little tired of the formula. Mrs C even nodded off on a couple of occasions – that really shouldn’t happen in a pantomime, it should be far too engaging and noisy for that. I think overall it just lacked a little finesse. A good example of this came at the end with the curtain calls. Mr Williams was left till last, which is fine because he is the star and we do like to give him a good round of applause – and he came to the stage, descending from the Gods on Aladdin’s magic carpet. Great idea; trouble is, when he landed at the end, there was nothing for him to do but to get slowly unharnessed by stagehands and then just nip round the back, as the curtain had already come down on the rest of the cast. What should have been a grand entrance became a graceless one.

However, don’t let this put you off booking for Snow White next Christmas – we’ll still be booking for it!

Production photos by Robert Day.

Review – Aladdin, Derngate, Northampton, 21st December 2011

AladdinIf you’re looking for a bright and brash pantomime this Christmas, Aladdin at the Derngate in Northampton completely fills the bill. Lavish sets and costumes, beautiful dancers, a very funny script and some star performances mean this year they’re definitely on to a winner.

At first, I was a little dubious about booking, as we were going to at least one other Christmas show this December – as it happens, we’re now going to four – and I thought this one might be overkill. Then they announced that Basil Brush would be in the show, and as Mr Brush and I are old friends (we met in 1971) I couldn’t resist seeing the foxy little chap again. And I’m very pleased we went.

Boom! Boom!I can’t quite get my head round Mr Brush’s new voice – he must have had training from a new vocal coach. Once you can forget that, he’s as funny as ever, being cheeky with the rest of the cast, ad-libbing inventively when things go wrong, and bopping along to all the songs on top of his box. He’s simply irresistible, and got a huge cheer at curtain call.

Bobby DavroTop of the bill is Bobby Davro as Wishee Washee, who I’ve never seen live before and who never particularly appealed to me as a TV performer – nothing against him, just not really my style. But I have to say he works the audience like a demon! His act is full of impersonations that give the story an extra dimension, as and when people like Harry Hill, Bruce Forsyth and Ozzy Osbourne suddenly appear and become part of the tale. He delivers his funny lines with panache and confidence and is the main source of the great energy that runs through the entire show. His version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, which he performs with Jeffrey Holland’s Widow Twankey and an uncredited performer known as Pinkie (I think I worked out who he is), is really hilarious. It involves a lot of audience participation and a sou’wester would be useful!

Jeffrey HollandTalking of Mr Holland, we saw him last year in the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Dick Whittington when I felt he was crowded out by some more outstandingly performed and written roles. I’m pleased to say that in this Aladdin he’s extremely funny – his costumes are great, he delivers the more adult lines with deft aplomb, he’s full of energy, and he’s a great bonus to the production.

Brian FortunaAladdin himself is played by Brian Fortuna, which enables the show to play up the dancing element of the entertainment to great effect. For someone to whom panto must feel a very foreign genre, he throws himself into it with infectious enthusiasm. His interaction with the others, especially Messrs Davro and Brush, is very funny, David O’Mahony and he conveys Aladdin’s over-confidence extremely well. Plus there’s a great salsa!

One other terrific performance comes from David O’Mahony as Abanazar (bless you). He exudes disdainful evil from the word go and is haughtily dismissive of the delightful Scheherazade Charlotte Bull(Charlotte Bull) whilst playing up the “Oh yes I will/Oh no you won’ts” with childish glee. He gets the level of camp absolutely perfect.

There isn’t a weak link in the show; it all moves forward at a cracking pace and it’s a brilliant entertainment for the Christmas season.