I 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.
Last 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!
Technical 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.
Naturally, 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 year, 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.
Ah, the Palladium panto. Such stuff that dreams are made on. I can’t tell you just quite how excited I get at the prospect of going to the Palladium, splashing out the cash on a bottle of champagne (hey big spender), and revelling in all the festive fun. A lot of it is nostalgia, of course, although, in the Julian Clary era, the Palladium panto isn’t really for kids, whereas when I were a lad it definitely was. But as soon as you enter that auditorium, we all turn into big kids. And hurrah for that! And whilst on that note, I really liked the tribute to pantos of the past with all the posters that surround the Palladium stage, dating back way even earlier than when I started going there – that gave me a true nostalgic glow.
Taking into account the necessary Covid constraints, Pantoland at the Palladium is a remarkable achievement. Originally scheduled for the Christmas of 2020, it was a vehilce to get together a typical Palladium big show with the limited time and resource commitment of dipping in and out of lockdowns. It had a handful of performances and then had to be shelved, like nearly everything else. So it’s good to see it back again this year, with a little change of personnel, but still in its guise as not so much a pantomime, more a revue of Pantomime’s Greatest Hits.
With such a star cast and with all the glitz and glamour of a Palladium panto show, does it matter that it’s not actually a pantomime? In my opinion, actually it does. Whilst I enjoyed it enormously – you’d have to be so hard-hearted and devoid of a sense of humour not to – it lacked the purposefulness and narrative drive of a proper story. Julian Clary tells it like it is right from the start, when he says there’s no baddie to boo, no Paul O’Grady cackling away evilly and loathing the sight of any children in the audience. This, apparently, is because we’ve had enough sadness, we just want to laugh. But the absence of someone to boo really does reveal a great big hole in the show; it’s part of the tradition, and without that character, there’s no element of redemption – or at least revenge.
That said, it’s an excellent show, with all the usual suspects doing all the usual things, much to our usual delight. And there are a few extras, just to shake it up. Extra #1 is the appearance of novelty act Spark Fire Dance, where Dave Knox turns himself into a human Catherine Wheel on stage sending fire and fireworks in every direction. It’s a terrific act that takes your breath away, and reminds you of the novelty acts of 20th century pantos more than those from more recent years. Extra #2 is (are) The Tiller Girls, a mainstay of London Palladium shows from the 1960s. Without doubt it was fun to see them again, but they didn’t sit easily with the concept of pantomime, with which I don’t think they’ve ever been associated in the past. Yes, they’re pure Palladium, but not panto.
Extra #3, who needs a paragraph all for himself, is Donny Osmond. DONNY OSMOND!! From the moment he comes on stage at the beginning of the show, the audience goes wild at him. The shout of WE LOVE YOU DONNY! picks up on-and-off from various parts of the audience throughout the show. Certainly the group of ladies behind us was ecstatic to see him. And what a trouper, with a terrific sense of humour, and no sense whatsoever of being too big for his boots, indeed, quite the opposite. And yes, he sings Puppy Love. And Crazy Horses. And Love me for a Reason. And Let Me In. And, in a memorable duet with Julian Clary, Any Dream Will Do from Joseph. His voice is fantastic – he’s probably a more mature and expressive singer now than he ever was in the teenybop years. If you lived through the 70s and remember how huge The Osmonds were, it’s a true treat to be able to see him, in such good voice and in such good humour.
The usual suspects do their usual turns; Paul Zerdin and Sam do their brilliant vent act, which includes Sam leering at a lady in the front row (“once Puppet, never look back”) and having a couple from the audience wearing face masks (no, not those face masks) and acting out a domestic tiff on stage, powerless to prevent Mr Z from airing their most embarrassing dirty laundry. Gary Wilmot does his various dame routines, including his confectionary sketch and his piece de resistance, his patter song including all the stations of the London Underground – just an amazing feat. Nigel Havers comes on for absolutely no reason whatsoever in various stupid costumes, because, well, Nigel Havers. Jac Yarrow and Sophie Isaacs good-heartedly represent the young couple who always get married in every pantomime, despite the endless ribbings of Julian Clary, deriding their talent, their looks, their age, and so on. Mr C does keep the whole thing going though, as a unifying force, because, well, Julian Clary. In a big comedy number, Messrs C, Z, W and H come together for their Twelve Days of Christmas song, which, obvs, gets more and more ridiculous as it progresses.
Huge fun, great sets and costumes, fabulous music, and tried and tested panto routines make for a great night out. But I hope next year they return to doing A Proper Panto. I would have given it one star fewer because of the lack of narrative and purpose; but, at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, and taking a wider view – DONNY OSMOND!!!
For the fourth year, the Palladium have resurrected their old tradition of a Christmas Panto season, and, financially speaking, it must be one of their wisest moves in decades. Oldies like me remember the halcyon days of Cilla Black and Jimmy Tarbuck, Ronnie Corbett and Terry Scott gracing the stage with their wickedly brilliant panto performances – and that kind of experience creates a love for theatre that (hopefully) never goes away. So impressed by our enthusiasm for the Palladium panto were they, that our friends the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley brought his dad (the Grand Old Duke of Kent) as a Christmas treat. And why not?
This year Qdos pulled out even more of all the stops for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks – you might ask – as a panto? Good question. Despite all the adult humour, variety acts and in-jokes of the past few years, the Palladium pantomime has always been exactly that – a panto. However, this year…. the astute amongst you will have twigged that Goldilocks isn’t really a panto. A fairy tale, maybe; but the two beasts aren’t necessarily the same. This year’s yuletide Palladium offering is many things: circus, magic, burlesque, song-and-dance, an all-round very funny and extraordinarily vivid Vegas-style extravaganza that I thoroughly enjoyed. But panto – it isn’t. For the surprisingly large number of kids in the audience for the Saturday night after Christmas – their parents obviously didn’t get the memo – there would have been very little of the spoken word element of the show that they would have understood.
Of course, there’s always a comic frisson of the naughty bits that the adults get that the kids don’t. But in this case, the balance was so extreme that the only things the children would have got out of it would be the visuals. A very enjoyable magic act, great costumes, music and lighting, some (and I stress some) of Paul Zerdin’s ventriloquist act and – without question the best couple of minutes in the show – the amazing performance by Peter Pavlov and his troupe in the Dome of Speed – four motor bike riders criss-crossing each other in the dark that made your hair stand on end and elicited the best applause of the night. And maybe that’s enough to satisfy the kids – I’m not a parent. But I am glad not to have had to answer a string of very inquisitive questions on the way home from the theatre.
Putting all that aside, it’s a great show, with Palladium Perennial Julian Clary reigning supreme as the Ringmaster – you’ll already have supplied all your own jokes, but his are a good deal filthier. If you’re in need of a double entendre, you’ll always find Julian popping up with a warm hand upon his entrance. He’s a joyous presence, totally in command of the audience, a guarantee of a good night out before you even consider the contributions of the rest of the cast. In the role of arch-baddie (which is as near as you get to pantomime in this show) is Paul O’Grady as Baron von Savage, assuming malice with effortless ease; to the extent that maybe you’d like to see him put a little more effort in, although that really isn’t his style.
Other recidivist performers are Nigel Havers as Daddy Bear, who’s perfected a nice portly swagger, Paul Zerdin, whose vent skills are terrific (although I really didn’t go for the baby puppet at all) and Gary Wilmot as Dame Betty Barnum, in charge of the local circus. I always look forward to seeing Mr Wilmot, because he’s a master song-and-dance man, and by all accounts this year’s patter song is a-ma-zing, but his voice wasn’t holding out well enough during our performance for him to tackle it, which was abitofashame.
New blood arrived in the form of the irrepressibly nice Matt Baker, who played the irrepressibly nice Joey the Clown. If they ever want to revive Barnum, he should be front of the queue of contenders, because his high-wire skills are superb. Janine Duvitski’s Mummy Bear is Straight Outta Benidorm, with her implications of BDSM nights of ecstasy; shame she wasn’t given a chance to be a little more three-dimensional. Lauren Stroud’s Baby Bear wins the runner-up Best Scene Award for her fantastic 42nd Street routine (I did tell you it wasn’t really a panto), and Sophie Isaacs is a suitably charming Goldilocks.
What it doesn’t have: It’s Behind You! Oh No It Isn’t! A Ghost – Where? – and jokes for the kids. What it does have: daredevil motorbike riders, Julian Clary’s innuendos, an incredible orchestra, costumes and lighting, and Nigel Havers making a joke about Prince Andrew. We all laughed our heads off. And although I might have preferred something just a tad more traditional, it’s the Palladium panto, dammit, so what are you complaining about?
It’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…..”?
No, 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.
Kids 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.
There’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.
Even 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.
And 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.
So 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.
There 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!
P. 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!
P. 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!
I remember reading about Flowers for Mrs Harris before it opened in Sheffield a couple of years back and finding that it failed to pique my interest much. Paul Gallico is a writer whose work has never drifted my way, and the bare bones of the story – post-war London charlady goes to Paris to buy a Dior dress – sounded horribly rooted in class and stereotype as well as sentimentally mushy. But then I read the reviews, and admitted to myself that I must have made a mistake.
Now that Daniel Evans has taken over the reins at Chichester, I’m not surprised to see Flowers for Mrs H revived in the Festival Theatre, and the timing was right for Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Mrs Chrisparkle and me to incorporate it as one of our theatrical weekends. The Countess had actually read the book in her youth; I don’t think she rated it much, so it was bold of her to consent to attending.
London, 1947; free from the tyranny of war, but not of its austerity consequences. Widowed Mrs Harris and her next-door neighbour friend, widowed Mrs Butterfield, just about scrape a living by cleaning the houses of a variety of clients, from posh Lady Dant to wannabe actress Pamela, from a cantankerous retired Major to desperate writer Bob. But it’s when Mrs H goes to Lady D’s to clean (rather than Mrs B, who’s her usual daily) that she espies a Christian Dior dress hanging up in her wardrobe; and it’s the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. She goes home, chats to the spirit of her dead husband (as you do) and decides then and there that she must have one. Trouble is – it’s £450 – that’s £12,500 in today’s money. It’s going to take her years and years to save. But if Mrs H is one thing, she’s tenacious. She has her dream and she’s not going to let it go. But what happens when Mrs ‘Arris gets to Paris (to almost quote the US name of the book), and just how welcome is une femme de ménage at the exclusive Dior showroom?
The book has been adapted into this production by Rachel Wagstaff, who also adapted Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong for the stage; and given a musical score by Richard Taylor who had composed the music for the Royal and Derngate’s production of The Go-Between in 2011. To my mind this is a much more successful venture than either of those previous shows. You won’t find any linguistic or musical fireworks on display in this production; I’ve heard comparisons with Sondheim in the composition department and, personally, I think that’s way off the mark. This is not remotely Sondheimesque; there are no glitteringly memorable tunes nor starkly powerful lyrics that set your teeth on edge at the truths they reveal. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them. They create a mellifluous wash-over experience, accompanying the stage actions and the storytelling, but never taking over your attention or your senses.
Sentimental? Most definitely yes. Mushy? Surprisingly no. The characterisations throughout are very strong and it’s written with honesty and integrity so that the audience fully appreciates the motivations for what takes place. However, the story itself is delicate and sensitively told. We didn’t quite get a tear in the eye on a few occasions in the second act, but it wasn’t far off. What you do come away from this show with, is a sense that kindness and decency go a long way in making the world a brighter place; the more you give, the more you get. Despite the lack of welcome she receives in Paris, the kindness she gives spreads out like ripples in the water. Happy ending? That’s up to you to decide, depending on your own priorities in life. The colour and light that comes into her world at the end (and indeed, on to the Festival Theatre stage) are unmistakeably heart-warming and life-enhancing.
As you would expect, the creative team have gone all out to make this a show to please all the senses. Tom Brady’s ten-piece band deliver Richard Taylor’s score with passion and depth. Lez Brotherston (who else?) has created a deceptively simple set that utilises a revolving track to create the illusion of space, distance and movement brilliantly; and the modest furniture of Ada’s London kitchen drops in and out of view with satisfyingly technical precision. There’s some very inventive use of the staircase, and – no question – some stunning frocks on display in the Paris showroom. And don’t forget those flowers. All those flowers. How can flowers be so emotional?
At the heart of the show is a great performance by Claire Burt as Mrs Harris; battered by life’s experiences but incredibly resilient and hugely generous of spirit. Having seen Miss Burt earlier this year as Miss Littlewood, I know that she has an incredible stage presence and a wonderful way of connecting with the audience. Ada Harris doesn’t have the same brash self-confidence that Joan Littlewood does, so Miss Burt channels all her stage efforts to reflect the character’s good nature and innate decency. I must say, we were all a little concerned at the beginning because Miss Burt hit quite a few bum notes in the first ten minutes and I wondered if she was suffering with a virus; however, as the show warmed up, so did she and in the end she gave a beautiful vocal performance.
The rest of the cast create a true ensemble, with different roles in both London and Paris. Claire Machin is particularly good as Violet Butterfield, Mrs Harris’ hot-headed friend who only wants the best for her even though she can’t always express it. Joanna Riding is an exquisitely refined Lady Dant and a beautifully flawed Madame Colbert, struggling with the status of her position in conflict with her natural warmth. Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderful as the lovely Natasha in Paris and suitably irksome as the difficult Pamela. Louis Maskell receives the Best Wobbly Legs on Staircase Award for his brilliant performance as Fauvel, and there are also a series of enjoyable cameos from an otherwise underused Gary Wilmot. The rest of the cast all give sterling support and high-quality performances.
I’m not sure what my expectations were of this show – but I feel that they were exceeded. In the simplest terms, it’s just all very lovely, very sweet, and very heart-warming. You’ll leave the theatre with a love for your fellow man that you might not have noticed on your way in. It’s on until Saturday 29th, but I wouldn’t be remotely surprised to discover it appearing on some other stage in the not too distant future.
For the last evening of our Christmas London break we headed off to the glamour and excitement of the one and only London Palladium for this year’s pantomime, Dick Whittington. When panto returned to the Palladium last year for the first time in 29 years it was such a nostalgic and feelgood experience. Fortunately, it was also a box office smash and they soon advertised that is would be back this year. Oh yes it would.
The Palladium pantos were always a must-see for their top-of-their-career stars, the amazing sets, the lavish dancing and their full, brilliant orchestra. Last year they showed that they were returning to the same high standards, and this year they pretty much surpassed themselves. There were a few recidivists; Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers all returned, all largely playing the identical role they played last year. Paul Zerdin – this time in the guise of Idle Jack – even chose a couple out of the audience to join him on stage for precisely the same routine as last year, where they are made to wear ventriloquist masks around their mouths so that their words are pure Zerdin but their eyes are pure panic. But it’s a very funny act, why change it?!
Nigel Havers this time was Captain Nigel – come on, we all know the pivotal role of Captain Nigel in Dick Whittington….don’t we? – still desperate for a decent scene, still the butt of nearly everyone else’s jokes. There was a very sweet moment when one of the four kids that Paul Zerdin got up on stage at the end of the show to sing Old Macdonald announced that his favourite performer of the evening had been Nigel. You’ve never seen a slightly maturing, thoroughly well-respected actor look quite so flippin’ delighted. Julian Clary, fresh from his success as last year’s Dandini, returns as the Spirit of the Bells, make of that what you wish, punters. As you can imagine, gentle reader, in this particular pantomime, there was a lot of Dick. As usual, Mr Clary lets no innuendo escape unexpressed, nor does he hold back from teasing a corpse moment out of every other member of the cast. The rough, tough one out of Diversity was visibly shaking with barely suppressed guffaws as Mr C delivered him an unexpected double entendre.
Talking of whom, Ashley Banjo and Diversity appeared as the Sultan and his advisors, in a number of set dance pieces which, whilst not completely integrating with the show as a whole, carried on the old Palladium panto tradition of lively dance and comedy pratfalls. I looked on Diversity as the modern day equivalent of Charlie Cairoli and his clowns, who used to have me in hysterics as a lad. Diversity sure have a great stage impact, and all their contributions were very enjoyable.
This year’s other new blood were all pretty darn magnificent. Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams were reunited on stage after their superb performances in Half A Sixpence (still sadly missed) as Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren. Mr Stemp in particular continued to show what a brilliant find he is. He exudes a natural happiness on stage that is irresistible – and there were plenty of references to his past and future performances; a song with the Dame had the title Flash Bang Wallop, What a Sweetshop (I wonder where they got that from) and Mr Clary gave him a huge plug for his appearance on Broadway next year. Oh, and there’s another innuendo for you.
Gary Wilmot was a brilliant Dame – this time the standard Sarah The Cook becomes Sarah Fitzwarren. You can just tell how much Mr Wilmot absolutely adores doing this kind of thing; and his tube station patter song was a true pièce de résistance! Messrs Clary, Zerdin, Havers, Wilmot and Stemp gave us a tremendously anarchic performance of the Twelve Days of Christmas that involved Mr C hurling toilet rolls at the audience – not entirely sure that was meant to happen – and everyone stumbling over each other to get through the number unharmed, which they just about managed. A classic Palladium panto routine, performed to brilliant effect.
And I’ve left the best to last! I have nothing but huge respect for the way Elaine Paige as Queen Rat allowed herself to be sent up something rotten. Her singing parodies of her best-known songs, including forgetting the words to Memory, were simply hilarious. And what was even more enjoyable was that her voice is still astounding. When she delivered her first big number, the chills down my spine were out of this world! It made me want to dig out my old EP albums. (Don’t judge me.)
Extremely funny, glamorous and professional, this is just a wonderful way to celebrate the Christmas season on stage. Amazingly, there were even a few children in the Friday evening audience. Can’t think what they got out of it! This is simply an opportunity for you to go out, have a great laugh, see some fabulous routines and just be a child again. Want to be the first to hear about next Christmas’s Palladium panto? Click here!
When it comes to writing the annals of the development of Musical Theatre, few productions are more significant than Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first partnership. It wasn’t foreseen that R & H would be a dream team together, even though they’d had considerable successes in previous partnerships (Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and Kern). Given that the source play had been a flop on Broadway, chalking up only 64 performances, and that Oscar Hammerstein had had a string of disasters throughout the 30s, commercial backing was hard to come by. Few people thought a folksy musical set in historical Indian Territory would be The Next Big Thing. But those few people who did, laughed all the way to the bank as the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances (at the time a Broadway record) from 1943 to 1948, and the West End production didn’t do badly either, opening in 1947 and running for 1,543 performances. In London, Curly was played by a young Howard Keel – so young, in fact, that at that stage he hadn’t yet changed his name from Harold Keel. And there was the film version too, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 – I expect that made a few bob.
But it’s not only as a commercial success that it’s significant. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time. Usually musical shows would open with a big ensemble number to get the mood swinging – after all, the musical is the perfect vehicle for upbeat, uptempo, comic, all-singing and all-dancing theatre. The original production of Oklahoma! (like Oliver! you must never forget the exclamation mark) started with an old woman churning butter and a young cowboy singing Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ offstage, on his own, with no accompaniment. From glitzy and glamorous to minimalist in one fell swoop, you couldn’t get a more reserved, introverted start. In this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, Curly does actually come on stage before he starts singing, and Aunt Eller is washing shirts rather than churning butter, but I guess that’s progress.
Then there is the subject matter. Forget your Irving Berlin and Cole Porter fripperies of the 1920s and 30s, here we have a tale of survival, of ruthlessness, of potential violence. In its exploration of adolescent love there’s an element of Spring Awakening; in the character of Jud Fry you have a brutal sex pest, the cause of which may be due to his mental deficiencies; with his murder at the hands of Curly, you have the heroic young male lead killing off his rival in love. There were certainly elements of the story with which Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t comfortable. There’s a scene where Curly shows Jud how easy it would be to hang himself, using a rope tied round a conveniently protruding beam end. The song Pore Jud is Daid is a fantasy about how, after he has died, everyone realises what a great bloke he was (he wasn’t) and how much they will miss him and weep for him (they won’t). Where else would it be acceptable to laugh at a scene where a young man tries to convince his mentally challenged rival to top himself? It’s definitely the stuff of Orton or Bond – hardly what you would expect from a jolly Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the 1940s. But that is the power of the musical – it can explore such difficult material whilst retaining the veneer of light entertainment.
So it’s great to welcome this new production of Oklahoma! to the Royal and Derngate before it embarks on its national tour. The performance we saw last night was its first preview before opening on Monday and you could almost taste the excitement from the stage as the cast gave it all they had and seemed to have a great time in the process. Francis O’Connor’s set slowly opens out in the first few moments as the back flies up to reveal a hint of the bright golden haze on the medder; Aunt Eller’s front porch looks poor but hospitable; the ever revolving windmill sail keeps on turning and it’s easy to imagine yourself taken back to the Indian Territory of 1906 before it is assimilated as the 46th state of the USA as Oklahoma. Stephen Ridley’s ten-piece band plays the amazing score like a dream (there isn’t a duff song in the show, although occasionally some of them end a little more suddenly than you expect), and the volume amplification is set to just perfect (something that’s so easy to get wrong nowadays).
The choreography is by Drew McOnie, who basically seems to have choreographed every show we’ve seen recently, and is a joy to watch. You can see that a lot of it is inspired by the action of getting on or off your horse, with a sense of cowboy machismo running through it like a stick of rock. Typical of these early-mid twentieth century musicals you’ve also got a dream ballet sequence to contend with. As an audience member, if you’re not attuned to the choreographer’s style than these can be anywhere on a scale from dull to excruciating. But Mr McOnie has created an exciting, dynamic piece of modern dance, including aspects from other numbers and routines elsewhere in the show, and really bringing to life the tangibility of Laurey’s dream, with its sensual delights and terrifying horrors in equal measure. No dull dream ballet this, but a riveting dance drama, fantastically performed. Oh, and there’s dancing with bales of hay. Where else would you find that?
The show is blessed with a talented and likeable cast who give some tremendous performances. At its heart is the on-off love interest between Curly and Laurey and you really need to believe the relationship between these two for the show to work – and they express that relationship magnificently. Early in the show Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is to be found moping on Aunt Eller’s porch, sending off hostile vibes to Curly; but she has a glint in her eye from the start and really captures that sense of a young girl being swept away by her emotions. She is a brilliant singer, and brought a massive amount of warmth and affection to the role. She was perfectly matched by Ashley Day as Curly (who we last saw as one of those nice Ugandan missionaries in The Book of Mormon) at first feigning cocky confidence over his wanting to take Laurey to the box social that night, but soon unable to conceal his true feelings for her. I can imagine there’s a considerable sense of responsibility in delivering the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ by yourself, right at the beginning of the show, but Mr Day carried it off with ease. Vocally the two blend stunningly. I really enjoyed the whole Surrey with the Fringe on Top routine, and they did more than justice to People Will Say We’re In Love, a song I learned in my infancy, it being one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites. These are two young actors to watch – they’re definitely on course for a great career in musical theatre.
There are also a couple of actors who are already at the peak of their fantastic careers, and these performances will do no harm to their CVs either. Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang with amazing conviction. She’s on stage a lot of the time, even if she’s just washing shirts or observing conversations. We both loved how she expressed the kindliness of the role with very little sentimentality. It was a harsh world in those days, and you can see it in Miss Lang’s eyes. She also turns on the comedy with a great deftness, particularly in the Act Two opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, wielding a rifle that’s almost bigger than she is. And of course there is everyone’s favourite song and dance man, Gary Wilmot, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, with a comic performance that’s part pantomime, part music hall, whilst never going over the top or losing sight of the genuine concerns of his character. We’ve seen Mr Wilmot a few times recently – in the Menier’s Invisible Man, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Snow White and in Radio Times at the Royal, and if ever there was a born entertainer, it’s him.
The ensemble boys and girls all sing and dance with great verve and enthusiasm and brighten up the stage whenever they are on. But there are also some great performances from other members of the cast. I was very pleased to see that one of my favourite performers was in this show, James O’Connell as Will Parker, the not-overly intelligent suitor to Miss Ado Annie Carnes, who has been told to save $50 before her father will agree to their marriage; and who every time he amasses $50, he spends it. We saw Mr O’Connell in Chichester’s Barnum a couple of years ago and he’s a great combination of character actor and dancer. What I particularly admire about him is how nifty he can be on his feet without being one of the more svelte members of the cast. I’m sure he’s also going to have a great career. Lucy May Barker was Ado Annie, and gave us a brilliantly funny I Cain’t Say No. It’s a great fun role, being hopelessly attracted to every man she meets, and Miss Barker does it with great aplomb. There was also excellent support from Kara Lane as the horrendous Gertie Cummings, laughing hideously as she gets more and more attached to the unfortunate Ali, and Paul Grunert as Ado Annie’s inflexibly stern and protective father Andrew – who also allows Curly to get off scot-free at the end.
And that nicely brings us to Nic Greenshields as Jud, which has to be one of the most serious roles in all musical comedy – and maybe thankless too, as the audience doesn’t like the character even though you’re not a typical stage villain. Mr Greenshields has a fantastically imposing stage presence, and he creates the most expressive and moving performances of the songs Pore Jud is Daid and Lonely Room. There is a fine line to be trod with the character of Jud – part thug, part bumpkin; the kind of guy who will line the walls of his living room with the equivalent of Page 3 Girls, and fantasise about gadgets that will kill a man without his having a clue he’s in danger; but who on the other hand is simply desperately lonely and in need of some female company. Mr Greenshields treads that line perfectly – I thought it was a tremendous performance.
Oklahoma! is scheduled for a national tour from now until the middle of August. Whilst it may be a little old fashioned for some people’s taste, nevertheless when you have a score as rich and entertaining as this, as well as an excellent cast, great singing and dancing and plenty to think about on the way home, I unhesitatingly recommend it as a terrific revival of one of the most significant shows in American musical theatre. Oklahoma, OK!
Another pantomime, I hear you exclaim? Aren’t they all finished by now? No, indeed – Snow White runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 2nd February. Whereas many pantos start almost at the end of November, the Brum One only starts shortly before Christmas. Therefore you can always fit the Birmingham panto in, if you’re still feeling in the mood for some festive fun as the long days of January dwindle into February.
And festive fun is provided in abundance with this glamorous, showbizzy panto, with no expense seemingly spared on costumes, scenery, effects, music and a top quality cast. It boasts a funny script including some wickedly adult double entendres chucked in for good measure and excellent possibilities for hilarious audience participation from both older and younger theatregoers. The wicked queen’s dragon is a splendid effect, huge and vicious looking, hovering over us in the front stalls with the expectation it’s going to swoop down and take one of us away in its claws. Certainly from our viewpoint in Row E, there’s no way of seeing how it worked – I can only assume it’s the same technology that had Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sailing through the air a few years ago. Any latent scariness of the dragon gets deflated later on when he’s revealed to have a bostin’ Black Country accent, which is a nice touch. There’s also a very unsettling appearance by an old crone suspended in the air – at first you think she’s some kind of hologram but as she got closer she looked pretty real to me. Spooky enough to make you think they should have used that trick in “The Woman in Black”.
Of course, it’s all for fun, the majority of which comes from brothers Oddjob and Muddles and their Dame of a mother, Mrs Nora Crumble. This is Gary Wilmot’s first foray into Pantomime Damehood and he makes a smashing job of it. His eternally youthful infectious energy makes him one of my favourite song and dance stars anyway, and his two (self-penned I believe) songs, “Brummie Balti” and “Because You Love Them” are perfectly suited to the comedic and sentimental aspects of the role. I also loved his “OK, Alright” sequence, which took on a life of its own without any audience coaching. Matt Slack is a hilarious Oddjob, joking around the stage all the time, acting like a big kid which appeals to both the kids in the audience and the big kids in all of us. I loved his throwaway impersonations (his version of Joe Pasquale’s “injury at work” advice advert was brilliant) and he was delightfully dismissive of our being hopeless at greeting him with the agreed “Good job, Oddjob” – it’s an awfully difficult tongue-twister to remember when you’re laughing. Paul Zerdin as Muddles, usually accompanied by his sidekick Sam, had an excellent rapport with the crowd, and is a highly skilled ventriloquist. Sam appears in a couple of guises, in one of which his mouth stuck in the wide open position in the show we saw, which led to increased hilarity as Mr Zerdin coped manfully with the technical problem. He’s also brilliant with the tiny kids who come on stage at the end – including a really funny vocal trick with the oldest one; and he also administrates a classic variety-style act with a couple from the audience who end up being dummies, doing a little sketch with fantastically funny lines. Congratulations to them too for throwing themselves so whole-heartedly into the fun.
I think the loudest appreciation, however, was for Gok Wan as the Man in the Mirror – yes, he who has to tell the wicked queen “who is the fairest of them all”. He certainly grabbed the part (so to speak) with all the flashy campness he could muster, and his advising the queen in exactly the same way he would advise all the women on his TV show (I’m guessing as I haven’t seen it) was extremely funny. I’m not sure the queen would normally respond to “girlfriend” as a term of endearment. Because his whole TV persona is based on advising women on their clothes and their looks, he’s always identifying with, and responding to, the girls in the audience; and, if I have a slight criticism, as a male audience member I felt slightly ignored by him. But then Mrs Chrisparkle did point out that I didn’t have any problem with Linda Lusardi projecting her assets towards the men in the audience in Sleeping Beauty. Point taken. What was absolutely brilliant, however, was the sequence with all four of these guys doing this year’s version of “if I was not upon the stage, something else I’d rather be” – and this is the only one of this year’s pantos I’ve seen that has included this routine. Mr Slack definitely gets the worst of the deal this year with having to endure both Mr Wilmot’s feather duster popping up between his legs and Mr Wan’s policeman’s truncheon being thrust up his backside. To be honest, I could watch variations on that routine for hours. Mr Wan seemed to enjoy it so much that he it took him ages to be able to get back to the script!
With the benefit of hindsight, Muddles and Oddjob were never going to get a look-in with Snow White whilst Princey Prince John was on the scene – showman extraordinaire John Partridge in full-on hearty mode, leading all the singers and dancers in the showbizzy song and dance routines; although when he exhorted us to sing along in the first number because “we all know it”, I’m sorry I couldn’t as it was the first time I’d heard it. Apparently, it’s a song by someone called One Dimension, or something like that. OK I accept I’m probably not the expected demographic! Mr Partridge is a great singer and dancer and brought huge charisma to the part, and his occasional run-ins with Oddjob were hilarious. As the object of his affections, the nation’s Dorothy, Danielle Hope, was a beautiful and charming Snow White, who’s got a fantastically sweet voice and is the embodiment of innocence. Why oh why didn’t she take our advice – freely and loudly given – about not eating the apple? Still, one kiss from Princey and she was back up on her feet in no time. Stephanie Beacham brings a superior gravitas to the role of the queen; she’s unmistakably regal and vain, and carries off a wicked cackle probably better than she ought. She too has a great connection with the audience, as we feel her threats (“I know where you live”, “I’ll have you all sent to Walsall”) personally feel quite intimidating. A real villain to boo and hiss is always a treat.
Finally, where would Snow White be without her seven dwarfs? For this production they’ve chosen not to use real dwarfs but ordinary-sized actors on their knees in clever costumes that hide their real legs and appear to give them shorter, fake, muppet-style comedy legs. I can’t quite decide if this representation works well or not. Something inside made me feel it was slightly patronising, slightly freakish, which would not have been the case if they had simply used actors of restricted growth. It’s a no-win situation really. On the one hand, certainly the kids in the audience all seemed to enjoy their seven-dwarf experience; on the other, later that night Mrs C had a nightmare about them. Anyway, I do hope they were given good knee-padding.
The Birmingham Hippodrome prides itself on having the country’s biggest and brashest panto and I see no reason to dispute this claim. It’s a great show and you’re guaranteed a fun time. See it while you can!
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the corporation, the BBC brought out a double album in 1972 (remember those days of vinyl?) containing two hours of nostalgic clips – mainly radio – from a variety of broadcasts from the 1920s up until the “present day” – which if I recall rightly was Till Death Us Do Part and the Moon landings. I loved that record, and felt from an early age that the Beeb must have played an enormous role during World War Two in boosting morale and keeping spirits high. A major element of this was their cheery comedy and musical wireless shows like ITMA and Bandwagon, and it’s this kind of show that is lovingly resurrected in “Radio Times”. This production, a washed-and-brushed-up version of an original 1990s show, was born last year at the Watermill in Newbury, and is in the early stages of a tour throughout England which I’m sure will keep the home fires burning until Christmas.
I was very uncertain about booking for this show, as on paper (or on computer screen) it didn’t appeal to me that much, save for the fact that it stars Gary Wilmot, who is just about the most reliable name you can have on a stage to guarantee a good time. But I did think it would only appeal to old fogies, would shamelessly wallow in nostalgia, and have twee written through it like a stick of rock. Well, I was completely wrong. It’s a superbly entertaining show, with a funny script, great music and some fun performances.
The show never lets up in its attention to detail, which is a major source of the fun. Even before you go in, the ushers are dressed as ARP wardens, and guide you to your seat with little torches as in the Olden Days. The set itself absolutely conjures up how you would expect a 1940s radio broadcast from the Criterion Theatre to have looked; the costumes and styles are spot-on; and the use of language and comedic delivery capture perfectly those radio stars of the time. An essential element is that rather strange BBC radio comedy hallmark of a posh-voiced announcer interwoven with all the comic activity – pure Round The Horne – and this show kindles that happy memory delightfully.
The whole cast are great. A major secret of its success is having the performers play the instruments as well, a Watermill trick that eliminates that sense of a band segregated at the back somewhere. The Grosvenor Girls, who replicate the Andrews Sisters’ sound brilliantly, not only sing and look good but also play brass and strings. When guest hunk Gary Strong offers to chip in to the musical numbers with his ukelele, you soon understand why they all roll their eyes. And Jeeps the sound engineer creates so many different sound effects with a myriad of props, as well as his own voice, that heaven knows how Christian Edwards, who plays him brilliantly, keeps up with everything that’s going on. He must be utterly exhausted by the end of the show.
Gary Wilmot, as Sammy Shaw, the cheeky star of Victory Bandwagon, is precisely as entertaining as you would expect him to be. He has such an easy, relaxed style; his presence is a reassurance; his every gesture, word, song makes you smile. He is the Olympic Gamesmaker of musical theatre; every household needs a Gary Wilmot to make the day pass more smoothly. Sara Crowe is excellent as his long-suffering girlfriend and co-performer Olive, who elicits some of the sadness out of her songs but a lot of the humour too.
Vivien Carter plays Ann Chapman, the lovely young singer and receiver of the “Dear Girlfriend” letters, and she completely captures the era with an immaculate performance and superb vocals. But arguably the topmost laughs are from John Conroy’s stiff-and-starchy BBC producer Heathcliffe Bultitude whose character, shall we say, endures the biggest journey of the night. It’s a great role and shows off a number of Mr Conroy’s entertaining talents.
There were a couple of minor hitches; a few lines got garbled here and there, and Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was a little overamplified for a theatre as small as the Royal. True, I did occasionally have difficulty deciphering some of Wilf’s lines (the very funny Ben Fox) because his microphone was drowned out by the sound of the musical instruments, especially in the first act. But that’s not what you remember from the evening. You take with you the memory of some wonderfully funny musical numbers – Ali Baba’s Camel, I took my Harp to a Party, for example; you remember how the show created a convincing wartime vibe, and you revel in some first rate performances that made you laugh and smile all the way through. Abi Grant’s book is really funny and well written, and the whole thing is basically a delight. Don’t think that this show is just for Oldies – it’s irresistible entertainment for everyone and I’d definitely recommend it.
I’d seen and read a few reviews of this show in advance of seeing it, and they either loathed it or liked it begrudgingly, so I was a bit wary of the experience we were about to endure.
Let’s set the scene. Row A of the Menier. They couldn’t have positioned those seats lower to the floor. Really difficult to get in and out of the seats. You had to stretch your legs out to get any purchase. I was expecting a geisha to serve tea any minute. Also a bit on the side. Not too bad for our seats but the guys to our left must really have seen nothing more than a cardboard proscenium arch.
Anyway we are in a 1904 Music Hall and welcomed by the lively and opinionated MC; and because we remember Leonard Sachs so well, we knew how to react and join in with all the big words. The cast do an opening number (just as they do after the interval) and it’s all very jolly and “knowing winky”. Then we get into the main story, courtesy of an introduction from the Everyman character of Thomas Marvel (Gary Wilmot) and the show gets played out. I’m not sure the main story was really integrated with this Music Hall framework. It worked well enough, but almost by accident, I felt.
Most of the first half felt frenetic, without any firm structure. The last scene in particular felt very long; there was a lot of physical business that they clearly wanted to get in, and it just felt a bit too…too. It was much improved after the interval when the freneticism somehow felt more engaging; and by the end I was well happy with the show.
Gary Wilmot is such a top performer, it was slightly odd to see him in a show where he had no song-and-dance to do. But he creates a super warm link with the audience in this intimate space and is a joy to watch. Underused too in that respect is Maria Friedman with only a little song-and-dance; bossing her way through the show as the dominating pub landlady and also being a joy. Underused in a different way is John Gordon Sinclair as Mr Invisible as he normally has marvellously expressive facial gestures which in this show you don’t get to see! Add to this great supportive performances from Christopher Godwin (Ayckbournian stalwart) and Teddy Kempner (I saw him as Snoopy about 100 years ago) which keep the show going at a great pace and I thought Natalie Casey as the moaning maid Millie was actually quite brilliant.
Plus you also have a nice selection of magic tricks and effects. From our side Row A vantage point we could see how a few of them worked (for example pouring the wine into the glass in the air, and the floating handkerchief). Others were still totally baffling, and extremely effective.
So basically it’s an enjoyable romp. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek. Pure entertainment. Occasionally you could let your mind wander and then return a minute or so later and it wouldn’t be a problem. A very nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.