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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Robert Day.

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December

Jack and the BeanstalkThis is a toughie. I can’t decide whether to tell you all the bad things about it and then praise it, like Craig Revel Horwood on a happy day; or tell you all the good things about it and then move into grumpy mode later.

Hilary O'Neil It’s going to be the latter. Mainly because I look back at last night’s panto with affection. Firstly, there are some excellently dynamic and active performances. Hilary O’Neil as Fairy Cobblers is the spark that illuminates the entire show. Every time she appears with a wave of her wand she does a different impersonation, and they’re really really good, and really really funny. Cheryl Cole, Catherine Tate characters, Jungle celebrities, unnervingly accurate. She worked hard all night and it was appreciated; and she clearly changed her script a bit and made Gavin Woods (as Fleshcreep) corpse, which was delightful.

Adam Stafford Also marvellous was Adam Stafford as Dame Trot. A perfect panto dame, OTT costumes, lightly lewd conversation, super facial expressions, kept it moving fast, ridiculous but endearing.

Nick Weir I’d also give a big HIYA SIMON (as I’m now a member of Simon’s gang) to Nick Weir as Simple Simon Trot, who delivered his role with bags of energy, and really came into his own at the end with the traditional scene of getting four kids up on stage to play musical instruments – the kids were terrific and his interaction with them funny and inventive.

In fact, that’s the key word – energy. Bags of it from those performers, also the singers and dancers, and from the orchestra…but sadly, I have to say, I didn’t see much in the way of energy from Ray Quinn as Jack. He’s clearly a likeable guy, and is amusingly diminutive as the brave lad going to fight the giant; and the opening conversation of him doing the “alright, calm down” Scouse routine was nicely done – and I liked very much “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of a Liverpudlian” which I hadn’t heard before… Ray Quinn We know he’s a good dancer from his Dancing on Ice days, and he’s played the lead role in Grease, so he ought to be pretty dynamic on the stage, but to me he was just static. There’s an early song-and-dance number (Ain’t that a Kick in the Head) in the show when he is coming to terms with his newly found love for Princess Apricot Crumble (nice) with the backing dancers all smartly decked up and it should be Vegas-y or Rat-Packy with Ray in the centre of the chorus line all doing the high kicks – but his just weren’t high. They were limp, like he was delicately playing football with a three-year-old. Maybe he wasn’t well. Maybe he couldn’t be arsed. But it looked wrong. The marriage of Jack and the Princess was the centrepiece of the curtain call but it almost made the applause stop. Was that because of the lack of energy? I don’t know. But I felt rather embarrassed by that.

Other things that didn’t work – a brief “Oh no it isn’t” conversation between the Dame and Fleshcreep was no more than a private interchange that didn’t involve the audience, so it had finished before it had begun; that bloody Churchill dog that gets into every pantomime now should be shot; the underused and therefore pointless appearance of Moosterious (if you live outside Northampton this will mean nothing to you); Jack’s “fight” against the giant was the lamest thing I’ve seen on a stage since… well since Ripley and Ricky went out to sea.

I wouldn’t want to put you off going. It’s a good panto. I enjoyed it. I’ve reflected on it and smiled a lot. And it was very funny when the Pantomime Cow dropped her payslip – no idea if that was deliberate or not but it worked! There were lots of good lines, nice song-and-dancing, endearing characters, cute kids, terrific impersonations, but for me the overwhelming feeling at the end was of being rather underwhelmed. A bit like a whirlpool – really busy and lively at the outer edges but its centre is somewhere you’d really rather not be.