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!!!
Production photos by Paul Coltas