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!
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!
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
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!