Having been spoilt with a fantastic Guys and Dolls in the afternoon, eight of us came out again in the evening to relive our childhood with our annual visit to the Sheffield panto – this year, Cinderella. There is nothing quite like the Sheffield panto to cast off your worries for a couple of hours – and let’s face it, the country’s facing more than enough troubles at the moment, so we really need a stressbuster! Legend (it says so in the programme so it must be true) Damian Williams has returned for his twelfth season (we’ve seen nine of them) and I wondered how well it would work with him as an Ugly Sister, sharing the stage with another fat bloke in a frock.
Answer: it worked like a dream, because his partner in crime, Matt Daines, isn’t a fat bloke in a frock at all. Whilst he (she) was also vile and grotesque, his Melania was a very different kettle of fish from Mr Williams’ Donaldina, and they played off each other beautifully, leaving Mr Williams to do more of the interaction with the audience and Mr Daines to do more of the plot progression (such as it is.) He truly came into his own in the Strictly Come Dancing scene as Twice Daly – a very funny but obviously affectionate parody of The Great Tess. And we also had a very vibrant Buttons, in the form of children’s tv presenter Phil Gallagher, terrific with the kids and the adults alike, and a beautiful and extremely talented Fairy in the form of Joanne Clifton, who gave a display of dancing that’s rarely been seen at the Sheffield panto. As a result, there was hardly a moment to catch your breath between each hilarious or exhilarating scene.
All the usual Lyceum Panto elements were there – the patter sketch, the Lyceum bench ghost singalong sketch, as well as some first-rate jokes – my favourite involved a photo taken in an Indian restaurant with the group REM, with the punchline: “that’s me in the korma”. There’s also a decent Baron Hardup (great work by Mark Faith), a proper “you can’t get your foot in the Crystal Palace” (I always miss it if that line’s not used) and a stunning aerial display act – Duo Fusion UK (Qdos take note, they were more magical and exciting than the aerial act in their highly expensive Goldilocks).
Evelyn Hoskins was superb as Cinderella, making the role slightly less wishy-washy than usual, a girl with gumption who could put her foot down if she wanted to. She had great duets with the gently self-effacing Prince Charming played by Oliver Watton, and Ben Thornton was a spirited Dandini, helping to keep everything moving along at the sharpest of paces.
Plus over-enthusiastic dancer Lewis who kept having to be reined in, and the hilarious creation of Mildred, the extremely confident 8 year old, who kept stopping the show with her feminist observations about the plot – terrifically performed on our night by Darcy Beech (I think) of the Blue Team. And the poor chap in the third row who was nominated as Most Handsome Man in the Audience and had to wear a T-shirt bearing that same epithet for the rest of the evening. All enhanced by the fantastic musical support from the side boxes led by wildman James Harrison.
But as always, the evening belonged to Damian Williams, whose energy, irreverence, and willingness to make himself look as ridiculous as possible makes the Sheffield panto what it is. Already booked for Sleeping Beauty next year!
One of the highlights of all my Christmases is always to go to the panto. I’m a massive fan, and I don’t care who knows it. A year with no panto is a year wasted. This season we’ve got four pantos lined up and the first was our nearest – the QDos production of Cinderella, at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. We missed last year’s R&D panto, and I’m told it was a cracker, so I was really looking forward to seeing this year’s effort.
As I get older, though, I realise I have become something of a pantomime purist. And I slightly bridle against the way some pantos have been restructured to take account of the star performers involved. When I were a lad – cue Hovis music – if you went to the panto you’d have a principal boy (who was a girl) and a Dame (who was a fella). Cinderella in the 60s would have, in the star role, probably Buttons or maybe Prince Charming, then Cinderella herself, and then the Ugly Sisters. The Fairy Godmother would get a look-in on the poster, and Dandini and Baron Hardup would virtually be extras. Not anymore. Today, for example, top of the bill at the Royal and Derngate is Anita Dobson as Baroness Angelique, a role that doesn’t usually exist at all. Supporting are Bernie Clifton as Baron Hardup and Sid Sloane as Dandini. So what used to be two of the least important characters (plus one that never existed) are now the most important characters by virtue of the casting. For me, that has the effect of upending the balance of the production somewhat.
Also – call me a prude – I felt that the usual level of innuendo in panto that entertains the parents and frustrates the kids (because they know it’s funny but they don’t know why) lacked subtlety in this production. Frankly, the Baroness is a randy old thing who chases after anyone in trousers, and at one point is escorted off the stage by a couple of guys dressed as BDSM Joy Boys. The Ugly Sisters come on stage looking for a man out of the audience; in a One Man Two Guvnors moment, they pick on a stooge who is brought up on stage looking all embarrassed and innocent – and they call for him to be stripped! Fortunately they stop when he gets to his vest. Both these incidents would never pass the what would it be like if the genders were reversed test. Yes, I like a dirty snigger at a panto as much as anyone, but to me these two examples of sexualisation just felt wrong.
There are some parts of this production which are very entertaining – more of which later. There are some others that simply didn’t do it for me. Technically, it’s superb, with colourful sets, great costumes, a fab little band, and kudos to Chris Barrett’s lighting design which really stands out. However, although ostensibly it has all the elements you’d look for, it was deficient in the humour department – the script is, sadly, pretty weak – and they made up for it with a general vulgarity. Whilst Martyn James may indeed be an experienced comic/magician/panto performer, I’m afraid his Buttons was so downbeat, so dour, so drab, that I found it very hard to warm to him. It felt underwritten, underplayed and underwhelming. For example, when he asks us to greet him every time he comes on stage, it sounds more like a chore than wanting us to be in his gang. To be fair, in the second act he does three magic tricks that are absolutely superb – more of that, please!
As for the rest of the cast, it was one of those strange experiences where the sum of the parts didn’t quite add up to its whole. Anita Dobson absolutely works her socks off to bring her character to life but the trouble is you could never quite tell whether she was meant to be evil or not; after all, Baroness Angelique doesn’t have a known history, so we had to work it out for ourselves. I concluded that, on the whole, the Baroness was nasty but Ms Dobson is so enthusiastic and positive on stage that you couldn’t always tell. And she does front the best five minutes in the show with a cracking Don’t Stop Me Now together with the Ugly Sisters – energetic, fun-loving and superbly sung – Ms Dobson’s voice is still as terrific as it was when she sang the Eastenders theme. As far as musical moments go, Bernie Clifton carries off a very affectionate and rather moving performance of Love Changes Everything with sincere gusto, but the ostrich It’s Behind You scene didn’t work terribly well as the audience didn’t realise what was happening until the scene was almost over.
Further down the cast list things get brighter. Firstly, the kids from the Mayhew School of Dance are absolutely brilliant! Commanding, confident, cute and charismatic, they did a great job. Dan Partridge, as Prince Charming, has a great stage presence and a fantastic voice, and carries off the snobbish vanity of the part very well. Charlotte Haines’ Cinderella is, quite simply, adorable, with a great voice, a terrific connection to the kids in the audience, and a nice sense of fun. David Dale and Tommy Wallace as Claudia and Tess, the Ugly Sisters, work together extremely well and hit just the right level of almost-believable grotesque. They actually made some very thin material go a very long way! Jacinta Whyte is a charming and kindly Fairy Godmother, and the boys and girls of the ensemble do a neat job of all the singing and dancing. And keeping the whole thing going is the boundless energy and lovable warmth of Sid Sloane as Dandini, on top form throughout. He’s one of those performers where you can’t stop breaking out into a little smile every time he’s onstage.
So, a magical pantomime? Not quite. But things do buck up enormously after the interval. Two stars for the first act and four for the second balances out to a 3 star show overall. It’s on until 29th December – I suspect the kids will enjoy it enough for all the family.
P. S. I forgot the Shetland Ponies! I couldn’t keep in an Ahhhhhhh when they came on!
For the first time, my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind and I found ourselves in the curious position of seeing a traditional panto staged by the Final Year Acting Students of the University of Northampton. With panto seemingly as strong as ever in the affections of the British public, it makes perfect sense for the Acting Students to be put through their panto paces and learn the necessary skills for this most fun-based, and regular-incomed, of all stage entertainments. Oh no it doesn’t? Oh yes it does.
9.45 am is probably the earliest I’ve ever seen a stage production kick off, and that’s even after four years of rigorous attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time of day a gentleman of my years might not be quite so open to outrageous ugly sisters and hard-up barons; but not so for the 60-odd attendees from a local primary school, who were young enough to be totally entranced by the magic of panto, but also old enough to reject sub-standard performance and material. So, quite a tricky demand on the actors.
Things were perhaps a little slow to start whilst the young audience were working out in their heads at what point they should respond to what was happening on stage and how loudly they should be doing it. Let’s face it, that’s a skill that many adults don’t possess. Bryony Ditchburn’s enchanting Fairy Godmother opens the show to set the scene of fairyland, and to introduce us to our sad slave of a scullery maid, Cinderella, played by Ceara Coveney. Ms Coveney gives a kindly, winning performance; her caring for the hungry mouse shows just how kind and thoughtful she is. She also blossoms stunningly into the Princess Crystal (not that she was given that name in this version).
On their first appearance, Chloe Hoffmeister’s sprightly and spirited Dandini faces the task of cheering up Zoe Mayall’s Prince Charming, which she does by means of an earwormingly irritating song about Charming Cheese that remains stuck in my head several hours later. I think Ms Mayall is at a disadvantage by playing a character down in the dumps at this early stage, because we were wanting a really lively kick-start to the show to capture our attention, but instead we got a gloomy prince. However, her interaction with the audience does improve and we do share in her delight at finding someone who will love her for who she (he) is, and not just because of her title – a nice moral message there.
The arrival of the Ugly Sisters really perks up the show. Elouise (Mo Samuels) and Ermintrude (Chris Tyler), argue petulantly much to the delight of the kids, who were more than prepared to boo them at the drop of a hat. Mr Samuels performs Elouise as a graceless lout but who just might turn winsome if the right prince were to come along at the right time. Mr Tyler’s Ermintrude is a rough-as-guts, dumb-bell wielding, date from hell who gives us lots of well-executed and funny pratfalls. Their wallpaper pasting scene is definitely the highlight of the show, both of them throwing themselves (literally) into getting stuck in the paste and terrifying the kids with the prospect of getting a bucket of water thrown over them – (relax, it doesn’t happen.)
Alexandra Pienaru really accentuates the wicked with her portrayal of Cinderella’s stepmother, all ghastly wig and screechy bossiness. It’s a good, fun performance and she handled her two (yes two, that’s unfortunate) wardrobe malfunctions with effortless ease, striking up an off-the-cuff conversation with the audience whilst backstage sought a pair of scissors to cut her out of her first costume. I enjoyed Oliver Franks’ performance as Buttons, coming over as an extremely likeable bloke (I feel I should let Buttons know that the good guys never get the girl). He did have a slight tendency to rush a few of his lines; whether that was sheer nerves at the sight of all those kids (can’t blame him) or eagerness to get through the exposition so that we could get to the physical comedy quicker, I don’t know.
Hal Gallagher’s very laid-back Baron Hardup is almost too subtle and underplayed for us to appreciate the characterisation, and sadly the custard pie sequence didn’t really work, because there wasn’t really any purpose to it. However, Tiffany Mae Rivers and Liza Swart strike just the right note as the Brokers’ Men Mutt and Jeff, making the most of their scene-changing duties, and gaining an excellent rapport with the kids who were on their side right from the start. Perhaps the most memorable pairing of the show is the hilarious dancing between the enormous Mr Samuels and the diminutive Ms Swart. The spirit of Little and Large lives on.
The kids clearly loved it, and a very funny and festive atmosphere abounded. Good work, Third Year Actors, this was a tough ask and you rose to the challenge!
My first ever visit to a London theatre was to the Palladium for a pantomime back in January 1969 when I was a very small wee urchin. It was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Jimmy Tarbuck and Arthur Askey and I adored it. I don’t know why I missed out in 1970, but in February 1971 I saw my next Palladium panto, Aladdin, starring Cilla Black. In January 1972, just three days after my father died, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle still took me to see Clodagh Rodgers and Ronnie Corbett in Cinderella. And after that – for me – no more Palladium pantos! I didn’t see another panto until I was 19 (Mother Goose at Oxford, with John Inman). And after that, nada, until we took our nieces to see Cinderella in Malvern in 2006. But the London Palladium panto tradition was a very special thing, with its heyday being the late 40s, 50s and 60s. The last time one was staged was back in 1987 with – yet again – Cinderella. Now it’s 29 years later, and look what’s back!
Having loved my first three Palladium pantos, an irresistible force drew me to booking for this comeback show. And what a production it is! The old phrase “no expense spared” is often used, but this time it’s for real. The sets, the costumes, the orchestra, everything about it exudes riches and exquisiteness. They’ve got the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technology to make the pumpkin carriage fly through the air, and boy do they use it. With a nod to shows of the past, the panto includes the Sunday Night at the London Palladium theme, the famous revolving stage, and there’s even a brief homage to the Tiller Girls. The boys and girls of the ensemble and the supporting character parts give their all to make it a really entertaining night; and to top it all there is a star-studded lead cast that has to be seen to be believed. No surprise that it’s been a commercial success and that they’re already booking for Dick Whittington next December.
We saw a Friday evening performance – and you might expect that show to be a little more adult in its targeting than some of the matinees. To be fair, there were hardly any children there. That’s right, the Palladium, a theatre that seats over 2,400 people, showing a pantomime, and there was just a handful of kids. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had thought it would be an irreverent night full of theatrical fun, perfect for the break between Christmas and New Year, and no kids. I reckon over 2,300 other adults felt precisely the same. However, that was probably just as well, as the vast majority of the material was completely unsuitable for children. Cleverly unsuitable, for certain, in that it would go straight over their heads (possibly causing them to be a little bored occasionally) but unsuitable nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint, but merely an observation – I loved it!
The last time we saw Julian Clary do his stand-up routine I questioned whether or not his act was starting to become a trifle anachronistic, poking fun at effeminacy – especially his own – in this day and age. There’s no doubt he does it brilliantly and it brings the house down, but how 2017 is it? If the jury was out on that one, it’s just come back in, because in Cinderella Mr Clary’s performance as Dandini is an absolute triumph of camp filth. Scene after scene is crammed with double (and treble!) entendres, from his opening song about exploring Soho (to the tune of Downtown), to discussions about his muff and his ring, and being pulled off. Those few children who have sneaked in are totally bemused at why the adults are laughing so much. Actually, there was one teenager that Mrs C noticed, who understood all the dirty jokes but was having to suppress her laughter in case her mother caught her. Ah, the trials and tribulations of youth.
Trumping Mr Clary (although not in the American Presidential sense) – or not, you decide – is Paul O’Grady in the rarely seen role of Baroness Hardup, channelling his inner Cruella de Vil from the moment he gets out of his limo to the epiphany he has on the floor. I’d not seen him on stage before and he’s a right handful, I can tell you. As soon as an infant in the audience made a mewling noise he was straight on it: “Calpol that child, before I come down there and do it for you!” Between the two of them, Messrs Clary and O’Grady wiped the floor with the audience in a nice cop/nasty cop sort of way. They are hysterically funny. It must have been a complete toss-up (the innuendo is catching) as to which of them got top billing. I wonder who it was who told Mr Clary it wasn’t him.
More for the kids – although with plenty of adult twists – Paul Zerdin is a terrific Buttons, with his ventriloquist dummy sidekick Sam, dressed as a mini-Buttons. Sam has a mind of his own and can’t be trusted with anyone, as he both chats up and derides members of the audience, including the sexually-laden line “once puppet, never look back”. His is a brilliant act – no wonder he won America’s Got Talent in 2015. At one stage, he selects a couple from the audience to do the same masked vent act that we saw Nina Conti do in Edinburgh in 2015. Poor Richard and Angela – what great sports they were.
Amanda Holden is a very charming Fairy Godmother, with a lot of X-Factor/Cowell/talent show material that slips out at regular intervals. I rather enjoyed her performance because she doesn’t pretend to be anything that she isn’t – and when it came to the (highly enjoyable) If I Were Not in Pantomime routine, she messed it up a bit by getting the words wrong, and I found that rather endearing. Others, I believe, have been more critical. Cinderella is played by Natasha J Barnes and is a hearty and good natured soul in the best tradition of the role. Lee Mead, as Prince Charming, allows himself to be ridiculed by constant musical references to show tunes that he has made his own in previous productions and on TV; and, on even more of a self-deprecating trip, Lord Chamberlain Nigel Havers is constantly turning up, only to find he has no lines in this scene, and begging to be allowed to participate in the next. It’s a beautifully sequenced saga of ritual humiliation.
In a break from normal tradition, the Ugly Sisters are actually played by women! Suzie Chard and Wendy Somerville are the delightfully named Verruca and Hernia and they do a good job but they are basically outshone by the all the other stars that surround them. The only problem comes with Baron Hardup played by Steve Delaney’ alter ego, the rambling and forgetful Count Arthur Strong. As soon as the Count comes on and starts dithering it seems to sap all energy from the production. His laughs are few and far between and frankly (and this is an unpleasant thing to admit) you can’t wait for him to get off the stage. He redeems himself in the aforementioned If I Were Not in Pantomime scene, but I think his appearance is simply too much at odds with the showbizzy glamour of everything and everyone else on stage.
Still, the rest of the show is so good that this little quibble really doesn’t matter. A triumphant return of panto to the Palladium, and a packed theatre full of ecstatic punters. We’ll definitely be booking for next year!
Production photos by Paul Coltas and Steve Williams
Three cheers for the Prince Charming and the Princess Starlight! OK, maybe I’m working backwards, but at least that got your attention. Sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you, by the way; but if that was a surprise then maybe you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a computer by yourself. And since when did the Princess Crystal become the Princess Starlight? It’s true that at just 2 hours and 5 minutes the cast fairly whizz through the show – maybe it’s the Starlight Express version? Anyway, here goes: Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hooray!… I’m sure we didn’t get a third cheer last night, but by then Mrs Chrisparkle and I had each polished off two large Shirazes, so it’s possible I am mistaken.
Better than all the presents, all the turkey, all the mince pies, and all the tedious films on TV, Christmas doesn’t get better than a great panto. I love pantos. In fact, now that I have made out my spreadsheet of all the shows I’ve ever seen, I can confirm that in my 48 years of theatregoing I have now seen 21 pantos, only 3 of which were when I was a kid! Those 60s/70s pantos were complete magic to me, especially as they were at the London Palladium, which the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always instilled in me was The Most Important Theatre In The World (and you didn’t argue with her!) So it’s great to see the tradition continuing today in splendid style and in the hands of some very expert practitioners.
This year’s Qdos Panto at the Royal and Derngate is Cinderella; “the greatest pantomime of them all” boasts the programme. Not entirely sure that’s based on a Yougov poll, I suspect Jack and Dick would have something to say about that. And what about Abanazar? (Bless you). It is, nevertheless, a great show – lavishly mounted with fantastic sets, beautiful and funny costumes (Cinderella’s is beautiful, the Ugly Sisters’ are funny, not the other way round), well-staged musical numbers, many funny set pieces, and a talented and committed cast. Even so, I see David Cameron’s austerity society has reached Hardup Hall – Baron Hardup has been cut! Yes, this panto has no elderly, bumbling, stony broke father figure to make sense of the fact that Cinderella has to do all the hard work and they don’t employ a proper Downton-style staff. There’s no sense of poverty at Hardup Hall – it could just as easily be Money Manor or Cash Castle. Hashtag Just Saying.
John Partridge leads the team as Prince Charming, an actor I have admired enormously ever since I saw him as Best Zach Ever in A Chorus Line. He has great command of the stage and has a glint in his eye that says let’s have some fun with this, but not to the detriment of the story. For while he is most definitely at home camping up the Princey character something rotten in the early part of the show, once he has found his Princess Starlight, he plays the loving romantic lead absolutely straight (no pun intended; well maybe a little pun). His voice is spot on and his energy contagious. You may have heard that he has a duet with Alison Jiear (the Fairy Godmother) that stuns you with its power and beauty. For once, you can believe the hype – that duet is very very good indeed.
He swaps identity with Dandini (as you do), in the shape of Sid Sloane from CBeebies, whom we saw in Sheffield’s Sleeping Beauty four years ago. He has a natural ability to get the kids on his side, and always keeps the show moving at a fun pace. Kudos to him (or should that be Qdos?) for getting through the “a shoe” routine with an immaculately straight face. Danny Posthill was our Buttons; despite his success on Britain’s Got Talent he was new to us (if you are my regular reader, hello again, and you’ll know we don’t see much TV – we’re always at the theatre) but he was full of fun and also a great hit with the kids. I really enjoyed his great sulk when Cinderella ditched him for the Prince. He did some excellent impersonations – his John Bishop in particular was absolutely perfect; and when he brought the kids up on the stage for a rendition of Old MacDonald, you could see how overwhelmingly happy they all were. He also trades a lot of joshing banter with Mr Partridge – hard to tell how much of it was scripted or not, but it certainly created a lot of good humoured corpsing. Alison Jiear – my comment heretofore regarding Britain’s Got Talent applies – makes a very traditional Fairy Godmother. In other Cinderellas I have seen, the FG has some kind of gimmick – Sheffield 2012 northern and cack-handed; Northampton 2012 worldly-wise and knowing; and Kettering 2011 Christine Hamilton (say no more). But Ms Jiear looks and sounds like a most respectable and personable fairy, without a foible in the world; she sings like a dream and exudes goodness wherever she goes. A paragon of a fairy.
I really enjoyed Rachel Flynn’s performance as Cinderella; she’s very bright and charming, sings beautifully and invests the character with genuine emotion, and quite a bit of humour too. Also, crystal slippers look great on her. I absolutely loved the scene between her, Princey and Buttons when they were singing on the wall; beautifully timed humour and slapstick whilst still singing to perfection – that sure takes some doing. Ben Stock and Bobby Delaney play the Ugly Sisters as really funny grotesques; they carry off their wonderfully awful costumes with great aplomb and play out their (understandably) sex-starved fantasies with just sufficient innocence to keep it decent. The scene where the Ugly Sisters forced Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball was so well done that I forgot myself and shouted out to Cinderella not to do it – much to Mrs C’s chagrin. The singing and dancing ensemble look, sound and move great – often with nicely pitched comic overtones – and the little babes from the Mayhew School of Dance were full of attitude and charisma and did a great job.
Spare a thought for the sound engineer (Sam Poulton I believe), whom I bumped into after the show and who described himself as “thoroughly knackered” (or words to that effect). No live musicians means all the music and sound effects are at the beck and call of his knobs, if you’ll pardon the expression. Over 160 sound cues I think he said. Well there wouldn’t be a show without you, and it all worked seamlessly – so well done to you, sir.
What’s not to love? Great fun – we both thought it was among the best pantos we’ve ever seen. Great production values and some terrific performances. Fun for everyone. On until 3rd January, so you’d better get booking rapido.
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!
Bobby Davro was such a popular panto star last year that the Royal and Derngate invited him back again for this year’s spectacular. And, just like last year, it’s a rip-roaring Christmas cracker of a panto with a really funny script and loads of entertainment for all ages. Mrs Chrisparkle and I noted how amusing it is when you see lots of kids laugh their heads off at some of the more “adult” lines, even though they clearly haven’t got a clue why it’s funny! There are lots of such moments in this show.
It’s a beautiful set, with lavish costumes, a bright and breezy band and a feelgood factor running all the way through it. This year’s panto is sponsored by Skype, which means that particular form of communication conduit gets the odd mention, but it felt less laboured than in previous years when they kept on wheeling on that Churchill dog for no good reason.
Bobby Davro can do no wrong on that stage – you can never quite tell what’s scripted and what’s not, all of which adds to the spontaneity of the humour. His winning, instant rapport with the audience works a treat and you can’t resist being in his gang for the night. He clearly has a happy relationship with the rest of the cast and that too helps the evening go with a bang. He’s also given lots of opportunities for impersonations, all of which are spot on. He repeats his crowd pleasing routine from last year with getting the audience bouncing up and down to Tie Me Kangaroo Down, but this year his marsupial companion gets way out of hand – with absolutely hilarious consequences.
Denise Welch makes a rather “knowing” Fairy Godmother, recollecting her previous experiences with Jack (of the Beanstalk fame) and considering the potential usefulness of Prince Charming if Cinderella doesn’t get him. I was surprised what a clear singing voice she has too.
Cinderella is played by Danielle York with charm and enthusiasm; she and Mr Davro make a great double act – at its best with the chocolate shopping trolley routine – and her singing and dancing are very entertaining too. Most easy on the eye as well, if I may be so sexist; plenty for the dads, as Dara O’Briain would say. Her dad, Roy Sampson’s Hardup, gave excellent support in all his scenes, as the poor but idle Baron; including a very funny brief appearance as a policeman.
Tulisa and Jessie, the Ugly Sisters, are another powerful combination, and Andy Brady and Darren Southworth get great comedy value out of their superbly hideous characters. They brighten the stage every time they come on, and give very good “oh no you’re not, oh yes you are’s”. Mrs C was very impressed with their homage to Lady Gaga in their opening number.
The double act of the Prince and Dandini work very well, with James Darch’s Prince oozing grandness and superiority whilst Josh Coburn’s Dandini is a good rottweiler protecting his master. Mr Coburn comes into his own though with the set piece “If I were not upon the stage…” number. This is always a laugh whenever you see it, in panto or “end of the pier” show, but Mr Coburn’s appearance and the treatment he suffers by being stood next to Mr Davro is hilarious and deserves (and gets) the biggest cheer of all at curtain call. He’s clearly a good sport!
There’s a great young ensemble of singers and dancers who look perfect and dance really well, and the kids from the Mayhew School of Dancing lighten up the stage and perform with confident ease.
It’s a really funny evening – uplifting, colourful, musical, and performed throughout with great energy and excitement. We loved it!
Second Christmas show of the season and it’s off to the Lighthouse Theatre in Kettering for their production of Cinderella. If the mark of a successful pantomime is how much the children enjoy it, then this one is a winner. I have rarely seen such unbridled delight in a theatre packed with under-10s. Barely any conversation between the characters misses the chance to involve the kids – I’m sure “what do you think, boys and girls?” must be the most commonly found grammatical clause in the script. The little boy to my left spent the evening apoplectic with excitement, and the huge and largely deserved round of applause at the end was down to how much the evening had been geared to the kids.
If there’s a slight reservation about this, it’s possibly that the adults were perhaps not so lured into the script as they usually are in a pantomime, especially in the first half. I feel the key to a really successful panto is that while you’re keeping the children on a constant simmer of entertainment, every so often you need it to boil bubbles of adult innuendo to keep the grown-ups engaged too. A lot of the first half was very scene setting and it wasn’t really until after the interval that the script seemed to remember there were adults present too. Mind you, when the adult innuendo did appear, some of it was delightfully near-the-knuckle; the type that actually makes you catch your breath before you laugh as you remember the family company that surrounds you!
It’s rather a nice joke to have Neil Hamilton as Baron Hardup and Christine Hamilton as the Fairy Godmother. You wouldn’t describe either of them as “actors” per se, but actually their commitment to the show is palpable. CH bounces visibly as an excited fairy who can’t wait to Do Good and is enormously keen to engineer a Happy Ending; whilst NH bumbles ineffectually against the onslaught of the Ugly Sisters, but in a benign sort of way. CH has a smile and an enthusiasm that spreads more joy than you would reasonably imagine, and NH’s interfacing with the custard pie department is both funny on a superficial level and strangely rewarding in a natural justice sort of way.
Tony Howes’ Buttons connects with the kids in a head-on engagement of rude noises, funny faces and playground abandon. I could personally have done with a slightly more sophisticated interpretation of the role – but 200 screaming appreciative kids can’t be all wrong. Millie Banks is a beautiful young Cinders with a great voice and a warm stage personality. She scrubs up well as Princess Crystal and it’s no wonder Prince Charming falls for her.
Cinderella’s vicious step-sisters are played by Stephen McCarthy and Gerry Tebbutt; two delightfully over-the-top performances laced with a dash of utter filth. In fact there was quite a lot of groping going on at one stage, which kind of made me wonder about their moral upbringing. I’m sure at one point one of them referred to their stately home as Hardon Hall by mistake. They pitched the balance of quite hard-hitting brutality and farcical ludicracy very nicely. One of them actually reminded me of one of my old Headmistresses.
In the role of Prince Charming Danny Young just about gets away with it by virtue of his cheeky charm, although he appears to be dressed in a costume way too big for him. I did however like his scene where he danced with all the young ladies at the Royal Ball – mainly because instead of it being a rather formal Cinderella Waltz type affair, it was a cool disco dance that updated it very effectively.
Eurovision’s own Nicki French gives a super performance as a cross-dressing female Dandini who thinks – erroneously – that she might herself be in with a chance to win over the Prince’s heart, and who provided the show’s strongest musical content including the treat that is her version of Total Eclipse of the Heart.
The structure of the show is a little imbalanced as most of the laughs and best scenes are after the interval, which is well worth holding on for. Whilst this is a relatively modest production in terms of staging, costume and effects, it’s bang on the money if you simply want to give your kids some Christmas fun.