Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, London Palladium, 30th December 2022

Jack and the BeanstalkI never lose track of the thrill and the indeed the privilege of attending a performance at the London Palladium. Going through those glass doors instantly gives you a feeling of invigoration, of importance, and of being part of decades upon decades of sheer entertainment. As I was growing up, the Palladium always meant the pantomime, but also the home of revue – from To See Such Fun with Tommy Cooper and Clive Dunn, to the Tommy Steele Show, to The Comedians, to Larry Grayson in Grayson’s Scandals, to the Sacha Distel Show (appearing with the then love of my life, Lynsey de Paul) And then the big musicals – Barnum, Singin’ in the Rain, La Cage aux Folles, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the revival of A Chorus Line, and now full circle to the annual return of the Palladium panto. Good or bad, you can never be indifferent to what’s going on at the Palladium – and long may it remain so.

Julian ClaryLast year there was a plucky attempt to bring back panto to the post-Covid Palladium, with Pantoland, but it’s great to have a proper full-scale panto back here again, even if it is yet another production of Jack and the Beanstalk, although, for obvious reasons, this version is very different from the others around the country. The usual suspects of Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot and Nigel Havers return (and it wouldn’t be the same without them), this year with Dawn French on her second Palladium panto, the exquisite voice and presence of Alexandra Burke, and upcoming musical theatre star Rob Madge. It’s always bizarre (but traditional) that the roles of Jack and Jill (Louis Gaunt and Natalie McQueen) almost appear as afterthoughts; that’s just the way it is, except that there wouldn’t be a story without them!

Dawn FrenchTechnical highlight of this year’s show is without doubt the beanstalk – and I’m not being pejorative about the rest of the show! This is the most auditorium-invading, skyscraper-forming, neckache-inducing slice of vegetation in a theatre since Audrey II had too much to eat in Little Shop of Horrors. And having Jack climb up it is a terrific idea. We were seated pretty near the beanstalk and it’s a shame that the illusion kind of ends with a view that few people would have had, namely Jack dangling around at the very top of the auditorium, waiting for that final pull that would yank him through the roof and into safety. But it’s still a great effect.

Gary WilmotNaturally, Mr Clary appeared in a sequence of outlandish garments, and if there hadn’t been a double-entendre for a few minutes, he’d give us one. His badinage with all the cast – and indeed the audience – is a thing of beauty and a joy forever and is pretty much worth the (expensive) ticket price on its own. Mr Wilmot – of course – did another of his list songs, this year about diseases and ailments, and is always a great laugh. Among the new elements this Rob Madge and Louis Gauntyear, my favourite was probably Rob Madge as Pat the Cow, a West-End Musical-obsessed bovine, who had me in hysterics with their version of that Les Miserables classic, I Creamed a Cream.

There’s no questioning the production values of a show like this – literally, no expense is spared and it’s a pure onslaught of pizzazz from start to finish. As always, enormous fun, and don’t bother bringing the children.

Production photos by Paul Coltas

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Snow White, London Palladium, 29th December 2018

Snow WhiteIt’s the third year that the tradition of the London Palladium panto has been revived, and I nabbed our tickets as early as I could. The last two Palladium pantos have been magnificent with their usual cast recidivists, Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers; topped up with Gary Wilmot and Charlie Stemp this year and last year, and a fresh baddie every year – first, Paul O’Grady, next Elaine Paige, and this year, Dawn French. As always, the production department has thrown everything at it – glamorous costumes, lively sets, a glorious orchestra, a superb supporting cast and a very funny script. Are you waiting for me to come up with a “but…..”?

Julian ClaryNo, there’s no buts. This is as exciting, hilarious and downright filthy as you might expect. I’m sure the majority of the children present – and there were surprisingly quite a few for a Saturday night – wouldn’t have understood one word that Julian Clary said; and if they did, then Social Services need a word with the parents. However, hidden within the concoction that is the panto Snow White, there were a few moments that would really appeal to kids: Paul Zerdin as Muddles, with his irrepressible puppet Sam, and Gary Wilmot’s Dame, as ever with a patter song, this time about all the stars that have ever appeared at the Palladium to the tune of I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General. Mr Wilmot had to stop the orchestra, actually, because he left a huge chunk of his list out! One sequence that took me back to my childhood was the appearance of the Palladium Pantaloons, four fast and funny acrobatic guys who took the roof off in the best Charlie Cairoli tradition.

vincent and flaviaKids also like Strictly Come Dancing, and this panto has special guest appearances by Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace. They perform two enchanting dances, the second of which is an Argentine Tango; it’s their speciality and you can’t take your eyes off them. They play the King and Queen but there’s no real attempt to integrate them into the rest of the plot; they’re just a couple of delightful interludes.

Danielle HopeThere’s also romance, in the form of the charming Danielle Hope as Snow White and the irresistible Charlie Stemp as Prince Harry of Hampstead. I’m sure I’m not risking any spoilers when I tell you that the two of them get married in the end, ahhh. That’s not before both of them have run the gamut of side-swipes from the waspish tongue of Mr Clary, of course. As last year, there were moments when Mr Stemp just couldn’t continue for laughing. His star quality shines through; and Mrs C and I can’t wait to see him in Mary Poppins later this year. And Ms Hope did a devilish thing during a slightly ham-fisted piece of comic business; she accidentally switched off the control button on the remote Sam, so when they were meant to be having a conversation together, Sam just sat there, like the dummy he is. One of the children brought on stage for a singalong at the end announced that that was their favourite moment of the show.

gary wilmotEven though they’re not mentioned in the title, Snow White does have her usual team of cohabitees at the house in the forest, here referred to as The Magnificent Seven. I can only presume it’s a copyright issue but none of them bear the same names as their counterparts in the original Disney film. Like, when did Happy become Cheery? Even Doc has now been upgraded to Prof; he must have been awarded an honorary degree somewhere. They are, of course, an ensemble all of their own, but I must say I do always enjoy seeing Craig Garner (Cheery) on stage; I still have very fond memories of his Tommy the Cat in Sheffield’s Dick Whittington a few years ago.

julian clary and nigel haversAnd of course, there’s Nigel. We know it’s Nigel because he has five big letters on stage around which he cavorts, just like Cilla did in her 1960s TV series. By the way, there’s precious little attempt for any of the performers to hide behind their character names. All the way through it’s Nigel, Dawn, Julian, Charlie etc on stage. This year’s ritual humiliation for Nigel is that he has finally been given a part – that of Julian Clary’s understudy. As you would expect, he doesn’t really come up trumps, but I do love how he allows the production to absolutely rip his credibility to shreds.

dawn frenchSo how do the big guns get on in this panto? Julian Clary only has to suggest the whiff of an innuendo and the audience are at his feet. Over the last decade he has become the supreme pantomimier, if there were to be such a word (I’ve just invented it); the arch practitioner who appreciates the combination of apparent innocence and utter filth and understands exactly how far to take it for the best comic effect. He is, of course, supported by the most outrageous costumes imaginable, some of them totally ridiculous. They must weigh a ton, so I reckon he’s stronger than he looks. Dawn French’s Queen Dragonella is, from the start, Dawn French dressed as a regal bully, admitting she hasn’t yet mastered the necessary evil cackle. It’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek all the way through, from her lascivious (and unsuccessful) chatting up of the Prince, to her final re-emergence as a much more familiar figure. She’s enormous fun (no joke intended) and her obvious lack of scariness is presented as a strength. “You don’t frighten me”, says Mr Clary as the Man in the Mirror, “last year I did eight shows a week with Elaine Paige”. Well, quite.

Paul ZerdinThere are only a handful of seats left for the remaining performances so you’d better get in quick. It’s a feast for all the senses and guaranteed guffaws from start to finish. Can’t wait for next year’s panto!

Nigel HaversP. S. Why do some people have to be so grouchy about letting people in and out of their seats during the interval? We were in the middle of Row G of the stalls and you’ve never met a more unhelpful bunch of surly selfish theatregoers. Beware – if you don’t try to let me through, I may end up stepping on your feet and I am heavy; your risk. Mrs C is much politer than me, but even she was forced to tell the unhelpful youth at the end of the row that she was literally stuck and that he’d have to stand up unless they were both going to stay there all night. Honestly, people, remember your theatre etiquette!

Gary WilmotP. P. S. As we all know, the London Palladium is a theatre of the highest reputation and standing, not only throughout the UK but also the world. On a sold-out Saturday night, I can only imagine the bar takings – they must be tremendous; and that’s good news because all revenue helps keep our theatres alive. Having quaffed a delicious Chardonnay before the show, we returned to collect our pre-ordered interval Chardonnays halfway through. I took my first gulp and it tasted revolting. One look at the liquid and you could tell it was a much, much lighter colour than the wine in the other glass. Could it possibly be that a theatre with the reputation of the Palladium is watering down its wine? We took it to the barman, said it had been watered down and he didn’t deny it – in fact, he quickly and sheepishly replaced both glasses with fresh Chardonnay from the bottle. Buyer beware!

Production photos by Paul Coltas

Review – Dawn French, Thirty Million Minutes, Derngate, Northampton, 11th June 2014

30 Million MinutesWhen I saw that Dawn French was going to tour a solo show I knew instantly that I had to see it. Locally it was first scheduled to be on at the Milton Keynes Theatre, so I went to book it and I saw that the tickets were… £60! Really? Can I justify spending £120 for both of us to see a stand-up? I’ve never spent more than the high 30s for a comedian and they were Very Big Names Indeed. So I made a momentous decision – I didn’t book, based on a Value For Money judgment (just like I didn’t book for Kate Bush).

Then some weeks later it was announced that Miss French would be on at the Royal and Derngate. I wondered if good old “Bargain Northampton” would welcome her at slightly reduced prices. I quivered as I made my way to the Box Office Counter. “How much are you charging for Dawn French tickets?” The lady there was slightly bemused as she’s seen me there many times before and I’ve never asked such a thing. “£39.50. With your friends’ discount, £38.50.” Sold to the gentleman with the avid credit card. And people ask us why we love Northampton.

Dawn FrenchThirty Million Minutes is roughly the time that Dawn French has been around on this planet, hence the name of the show, and I kind of guessed that’s what the title would refer to. However, I wasn’t at all expecting the content of the show. I can’t say that it was an unexpected delight, or an unexpected disappointment – it was just completely unexpected! I thought it would be “just another” stand-up comedy show; even though I can’t remember her ever just telling jokes or doing a stand-up type routine, I still imagined this would be the timbre of the evening.

Thirty Million MinutesWrong. Thirty Million Minutes is like a live autobiography. 100% scripted, to the accompaniment of a video wall and sound plot, this is 2 hours 5 minutes (including interval) of soliloquised confessional. Initially I was disappointed, because I like my comedians to be loose enough to engage with the audience and go in different directions if that’s how the wind blows. When you’re chained to a running picture and sound commentary (as in Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation) there’s only one direction in which you can progress, and you just have to hope it’s what your audience wants. Well, that was one thing Dawn French need have no worry about. It was certainly one of the warmest and friendliest receptions for a performer I have seen for a long time. The audience (maybe 80% female?) was completely on her side from the start and constantly gave her encouraging laughs, sighs, murmurs, groans and supportive rounds of applause as the show went on, pretty much irrelevant as to whether the material actually warranted it. Because it was such a personal show, all the material was very female-centric, which felt slightly odd to me (maybe because Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t with me that night, she was wheeling and dealing with the top brass in the USA, so I couldn’t tune in to her first-hand female appreciation). I also felt at times, particularly in the first part of the show, that it was a little over-sentimental, with several “aaaaahhh”’s for cute photos of little Dawn and her brother, with their mum and dad, and an affectionate round of applause for a photo of Eric Morecambe.

But you have to hand it to her, she was able to create a family feeling to the whole show, and by the time we were into the second half, it was like listening to a much loved but only rarely seen cousin, going through old photos and reminiscing together about what great times we used to have. A few drinks, a few laughs, and it’s like we never lost contact. There’s a very nice balance too, between the complete sincerity of what she shares of her private life, and the fact that she still doesn’t take herself too seriously, and happily points out her (not quite hourglass) figure, and the fact that she’s got man’s legs and no neck. And she can’t hold back from doing some ridiculous (but perfectly genuine) disco dancing – as indeed none of us can when the mood takes us.

Dawn French and Lenny HenryThe family recollections became deeper and more moving as the evening went on – with very enjoyable stories about the two grannies, the very sad account of her father’s death, her unswerving love for her brother and her mum, the very honest memories of marriage with Lenny Henry, her immense love for and pride in for her daughter, and her “wow-factor” for her new husband. Go back twenty years and imagine Michael Parkinson on his BBC show; these are the kind of private memories he could teased out of one of his best ever Saturday night interviewees. By the end you really feel that you’ve got to know the inner Dawn extremely well – you can share secrets with her, ask if she needs anything from the shops and maybe even your and her family could go on holiday together for a week or so. That’s the kind of relationship you now have. With all the supportive women fans in the audience, I’m surprised they didn’t all accompany Dawn to the Ladies’ Loo in the interval – that’s what girls do, right?

So whilst I was slightly uncertain of how much I was enjoying the show at the interval, and part of me still wanted her to be able to break off and engage one-to-one with a few of us, I really liked it by the end. But I can tell you the majority of the audience absolutely loved it all the way through. Well worth £38.50!