Review – Peter Pan, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2018

Peter PanHaving had a wonderful afternoon in the company of Fred and Lilli, Mrs Chrisparkle, Lord and Lady Prosecco and I regrouped after a brief rest to see Peter Pan at the Lyceum. Our annual visit to Sheffield would not be complete without the usual two and a half hours of the sheer joyful childishness of feeling ten years old again. As usual, Damian Williams returned as the fat bloke in a dress (his words), this time as Mrs Smee – we never found out what happened to Smee; I can only assume he suffocated.

damian-williamsWhat sets the Sheffield panto apart from all the rest is its pure energy. There may well be (indeed there are) pantos that are more lavishly produced, with starrier names and with bigger song and dance numbers. But when I’m in the Lyceum, laughing along with a thousand other souls, there’s simply nowhere else I’d rather be. There are, of course, all the usual running gags – the patter sketch which is just an excuse to make puns out of fruit and vegetables, the-castthe constant comparison with the Rotherham panto, and, naturally, the famous Lyceum bench scene, where we constantly shout out It’s Behind You as a ghostie picks off members of the cast one by one till only Mr Williams is left – and we all join in with Well! We’ll have to do it again, then, won’t we? Mrs C and I continue to use that phrase at appropriate moments the whole year long.

damian-williams-and-gemma-huntAs usual Mr Williams is just sensational. His constant asides, his stupid laugh, his magical connection with the audience, his infectious sense of fun, and his determination that every show should be even more enjoyable than the last, means that he is simply the best in the business. That’s why we have to keep coming back!

shaun-williamsonOur baddie this year was Shaun Williamson, who’ll never lose his association with a certain well-known soap opera; indeed, at one point Mr Williams turns to the audience and said You didn’t expect to see Barry from Eastenders doing Taylor Swift, did you? We certainly didn’t. Other things we didn’t expect to see were Mr Williams emerging from the Tardis dressed like the Jodie Whitaker Doctor Who (well, it is Sheffield, after all); Wendi Peters as Mrs Darling singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd, wendi-petersallegedly as a lullaby but forgetting that it’s originally when Mrs Lovett is trying to track Tobias down so he can be made into a meat pie; or two new characters – Ethel the Overacting Pirate (I don’t know how Emily Watkins kept up that hearty performance for the entire show), and Dave the Don’t Care Pirate (fantastic sulking from Emily McAvoy until Mr Williams deliberately made her giggle).

shaun-williamson-and-damian-williamsMr Williamson grabbed the baddie role with both hands (well, one hand and one hook) and revelled in it completely. He gave a delightfully stagey performance, whilst still being the perfect straight man foil to Mr Williams’ never-ending one-liners. emily-watkinsHe also has a surprisingly good singing voice! Ms Peters, of course, has a fantastic vocal range and enjoyed playing with her characterisations of a very posh Mrs Darling, an Estuary (appropriately) Mermaid and a right-northern Big Chief Squatting Cow.

gemma-huntNot being a CBBC or Channel 5 Milkshake watcher, I’d never seen Gemma Hunt (Tiger Lily) or David Ribi (Peter Pan) before, but they both threw themselves into the fun of the role; Ms Hunt in particular has a very warm and entertaining stage presence, and I was very pleased to be on her side of the auditorium when it came to the traditional out-singing the other lot number towards the end of the show. (For the record, it was a draw between the two sides. Yet again! How does that always happen?) Jo Osmond was a very punchy Tinkerbell – samantha-dorrance-and-david-ribiI bet she could get you into all sorts of trouble if she was your best friend – and Samantha Dorrance perfect as a very sweet and lovable Wendy; as usual, her enhanced affections for Peter went right over his head. Boys, eh, what are we like? For added thrills and spills this year, we had the very entertaining Diamond Acrobats, all the way from Tanzania; and our children on stage were the Red Team – full of fun and some extremely good acting too!

jo-osmondWith lively music, a cheerful ensemble, a very funny script (of course) and that fathomless energy that the Sheffield panto always inspires, this was another fantastic end to our Christmas season. Cinderella awaits this December – we’ve already booked!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – Kiss Me, Kate, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2019

Kiss Me, KateEvery New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.

edward-baker-duly-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.

edward-baker-duly-and-rebecca-lock-as-fred-and-lillI’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)

dafydd-emyr-as-harrison-howell-and-rebecca-lock-as-lilli-vanessi.Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.

dex-lee-centre-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.

layton-williams-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!

cindy-belliot-and-layton-williams.Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.

joel-montague-and-delroy-atkinson-as-the-gangsters-in-kiss-me-kate.Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.

amy-ellen-richardson-as-lois-lane-in-kiss-me-kate.The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.

simon-oskarsson-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Mother Goose, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Mother GooseFor the second show of our Sheffield weekend we made our annual pilgrimage to the Lyceum Theatre for the unmissable Lyceum panto. This year, Mother Goose; and – as every year for the last ten years – it starred Damian Williams. Mr Williams’ tenth anniversary as the city’s favourite dame did not go uncelebrated; and quite right too, as he has carved out for himself a dream of a niche position – he is Mr Panto.

Jill, Mother Goose and CharlieWhy would you want to see the same actor every year performing more or less the same role? It’s a fair question, but the answer’s simple; he’s the best in the business. His instant rapport with the audience is a true thing of beauty. You know he will spend the whole two and a half hours taking the mickey out of himself, and of us, and of his fellow cast members, and of the show itself, and of Rotherham, and of the band, and so on and so on. Going back to the Sheffield panto itself every year is like the most self-indulgent comfort eating. Fairy GoodfeatherIt’s returning to something that you love, that nourishes you, that makes you feel all warm and safe, and that never lets you down. You know it will begin with the boys and girls of the ensemble running into the auditorium singing Bring Me Sunshine. You know the wooden bench will come out to a great fanfare and that Mr Williams and others of the cast will sit on it and sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life whilst ghoulies appear behind them, then we shout It’s Behind You? What is? A Ghost? Is there? The other Mother Goose and the villagersWell! We’ll have to do it again then won’t we! as the ghosts pick off the cast members one by one till only Mr W is left which makes the ghosts run off in terror instead. If that didn’t happen, you’d be entitled to your money back. You know there’ll be a spurious patter sketch where they punfully mention the names of either perfumes or aftershave, board games, pop groups, local towns and villages, newspapers and magazines, or as it was this year, shop names. Every year the same. Every year a winner.

Mother Goose and Demon VanityMother Goose isn’t among the most popular of pantos and this is only the second time I’ve seen it – the first being back in 1980 with the late John Inman as the dame. There’s something much funnier and totally ridiculous about having the dame as a “fat bloke in a dress” (their words, not mine) rather than a slim, camp man who actually looks rather good in a dress; nothing against Mr Inman of course, who was a fine comedy actor. But Mr Williams delights in his grotesquerie and really doesn’t care quite how preposterous he looks. This was particularly appropriate for this panto, as Mother Goose (the character) has decided she’s fed up with being teased for her looks and wants to be thought of as beautiful. Fat chance, love. But as she tries to be more beautiful, her personality becomes more ugly. Eventually all her friends and family say she’s not the MG they used to know and love anymore. MG gives in, stops all the vanity lark, and everyone’s happy again. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Demon VanityThe story of Mother Goose is so slight you could tell it in less than a sentence, which enables the creative team in this show to go to town on the characterisations and the interplay between the characters and the audience. Who cares about the story, when you’ve got Mateo from Benidorm getting the hots for himself in a mirror, with Mr Williams as his mirror reflection puckering back at him. There’s always one killer comedy scene in the panto, and that was it for this year. Jake Canuso, as “Demon Vanity” (who?), is playing his first pantomime (I think) and was a terrific sport, with the script absolutely playing up to his foolish and vain TV Lothario persona; never missing an opportunity to pout provocatively at anything passing by or to languish lavishly at the foot of the stage, always demanding the attention of the laydeez (and doubtless some of the gentz too). Mr Canuso impressed with his early dance training and is suprisingly nimble on his toes.

SquireElsewhere, Mr Williams was merciless with Adam Price, who played the Squire; Mr Price was giving some extra characterisation to his role with a bit of vocal trickery, and Mr Williams was like a dog with a bone. Teasing him to the nth degree, he did not let go until his prey was fully vanquished. He joked with Andy Day about he looks like Fatima Whitbread, and OMG he does; he constantly referred to one of the male dancer/villagers as Barbara – although he really didn’t look like a Barbara to me. I don’t think any of the cast got through the show completely unscathed, but it was all totally hilarious. Mr Williams picked on the hapless man at the end of the front row for a bit of audience participation, including naming the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs. The song that was introducing her firmly suggested the name Faith would be perfect to fit in with the lyrics. His choice? Wilbur. For a female goose. You couldn’t make it up.

Fairy Goodfeather againThis year’s two best lines: 1) when dressed as a mobile phone Mr Williams said he was going off for a rest as he’d downloaded an app (a nap, geddit?) and 2) when Mother Goose was told to lose weight, she thought the advice was “Don’t eat anything fatty” whereas in fact it was “Don’t eat anything, Fatty”. There was a 3D sequence in the second half, where we all had to don our special glasses. I always get muddled up trying to put them on over my own glasses, but fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle has had special training from Help The Aged to help me put them on. In the sequence, we accompanied MG flying through the air, and at once stage through a snow storm, during which, through some clever technology, rain came down upon as all and I got thoroughly soaked! Fortunately I have a terrific sense of humour.

Jill, Billy and CharlieMy other favourite feature of the show was the regular appearances of Lisa Davina Philip as Fairy Goodfeather. I loved her characterisation as a truly well-urban street-Jamaican fairy. It was a brilliantly modern and inventive take on an old format and Ms Philip was side-splittingly hilarious all the way through. I’m sure her fairy dust would be littered with rice ‘n’ peas. Definitely the funniest fairy I’ve seen in many a year!

The castThe kids we saw were the Red Team and they gave it everything – some really good dancers too! Cara Dudgeon and Dylan Craig were suitably cute together as Jill and Charlie Goose, and were pretty damn good at the singing and dancing too. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the dame. There’s nothing like a dame, and there’s no other dame like this one.

Booking has already started for Peter Pan next Christmas – Mr Williams’ eleventh season. Can’t wait!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – The Wizard of Oz, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Wizard of OzIt has become our habit over a number of years now to go up to Sheffield for the first weekend of January to enjoy whatever is their Christmas show and also the Lyceum panto all on the same day. Tradition also has it that we are accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco as their main Christmas pressy from us. However, in a break from tradition, shock horror, this year we switched the panto from matinee to evening, so we started off by seeing Robert Hastie’s new production of The Wizard of Oz.

DorothyA few confessions; when I read that this was to be their Christmas show I wasn’t entirely filled with enthusiasm. There’s something about the whole Wizard of Oz concept that doesn’t really appeal. Maybe because it is such a hardy perennial I feel that it’s an unadventurous option? I’m not sure. Another confession; I’ve never really seen the film. Of course, I’ve seen clips, and I know what the Cowardly Lion is all about, and I’ve seen Judy Garland follow the yellow brick road. And I know why people want to see the wizard – because, because, because, because…..because. Nevertheless, it’s always fascinating to see the full show of something you’ve only ever caught extracts from before. It’s like being familiar with old show tunes but never knowing their context within their original musical show, which is something I love exploring – it’s great for stopping gaps in your general knowledge.

FarmhandsYou, of course, gentle reader, are totally au fait with the story of the Wizard of Oz, so there’s probably not much I can tell you about it. Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her “only friend in the world”, Toto the dog (not entirely true; she gets on fine with the farmhands, Hickory, Zeke and Hunk, but that’s by the by). Horrid neighbour Miss Gulch accuses Toto of having bitten her (and if you were Toto, so would you) and she has a lawsuit for the dog to be taken away and dealt with – that’s one helluva euphemism. But Dorothy’s not going to take that lying down. After a futile attempt at escape she hides in the farmhouse where a massive storm tornado destroys the building and Dorothy wakes up in the land of Oz. As you do. In Oz, the farmhands have become the tin man, the scarecrow and the cowardly lion; Aunt Em is Glinda the Good Witch of the North; and Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West. Good of course triumphs, the Wizard is curiously revealed as something of a fraud, Dorothy manages to get back to Kansas and we all live happily ever after. Well maybe not Miss Gulch.

OzDespite my initial lack of enthusiasm, within about three minutes of the show starting I absolutely loved it and that feeling of wonderment didn’t let up all the way through, even with a couple of minor reservations. Having read a synopsis of the film I believe this is a very fair and faithful representation of that MGM masterpiece; so if the story isn’t perfect then I guess the film isn’t either. On reflection, it’s quite a slight tale, and a disproportionately long part of it is taken up with Dorothy meeting her three companions along the yellow brick road, and for me that did sag a little. Trouble is, that’s probably also the most famous part of the film so it wouldn’t be right to make a few cuts here and there along that particular journey to the Emerald City. There’s also a song number – The Jitterbug – that I believe was dropped from the film but has been reinstated in later stage versions. Whilst the staging of it was exquisite – more of which shortly – the song itself was one of those rather self-seeking stagey shindigs performed for its own benefit and not really furthering the story along. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have minded not seeing it.

Off to see the wizardHowever, that staging… hats off to Janet Bird for her design because it’s superb in its simplicity and effectiveness. I won’t give a detailed description of it because the transformation from Kansas to Oz is one of the show’s best surprises. Suffice to say, in a world of special effects and CGI it’s a delight to see something that is basically very straightforward and almost old-fashioned work to such a tremendous effect. She must have also had a plenty of fun creating all those different types of costumes; the farmy, Midwest domestic clothes, the outrageous witches, the scarecrow, tinman and lion, and of course the Munchkins, who all looked adorable – which is what Munchkins are meant to do, or so I understand. Richard Howell’s lighting also plays a significant and inventive role in creating with world of Oz – especially with its delineation of the Yellow Brick Road, and also in the almost disco-style ultra violet light of the Jitterbug scene. And Toby Higgins’ backstage band of ten musicians thwack out these well-known tunes with razor-sharp vitality and beautiful arrangements.

Cowardly Lion and palsAt the heart of the show is Dorothy; it’s a very big role and she’s rarely out of the action. Gabrielle Brooks impresses right from the start with her wide-eyed innocence and firm sense of justice and kindness. She has a wonderful singing voice and reduced Lord Prosecco to tears with her rendition of Over the Rainbow (oops, that’s me in trouble). I’m sure Ms Brooks can no longer be classified a “kid” but she really conveys a moving illusion of childhood in her performance. I already knew that Sophia Nomvete was a great performer, having had her move me to tears in The Color Purple, and once again she gives a beautiful, gutsy, funny performance as Aunt Em and Glinda. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Jonathan Broadbent again as he had been so toe-curlingly hilarious The Norman Conquests last year in Chichester, and he was just perfect as the Cowardly Lion, a genuinely funny and touching performance. Andrew Langtree and Max Parker as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man also give very good performances as did Michael Matus in his roles, particularly as the Oz Gatekeeper, a maniacal Rottweiler if ever there was one. Catrin Aaron is a terrific baddie as both Miss Gulch and the witch, and Ryan Ellsworth a rather mysterious Professor Marvel, and suitably understated Wizard. I’m not sure whether we saw the Yellow Brick Road Team or the Emerald City Team of munchkins, but they were great, throwing themselves into their song with true relish. And the adult ensemble too were excellent with their enthusiasm, their musicality and conveying the sheer joy of this very positive show.

GlindaBut for true grit and determination, and a performance like few others I’ve seen, Rhiannon Wallace, the puppeteer who performed Toto in Oz absolutely stole the show. Oz Toto is a scruffy urchin in comparison with Kansas Toto, who struck me as being rather superior. Ms Wallace’s facial expressions constantly changing to portray the dog’s emotions was such an effective method of fully creating this character who, after all, is very central to the plot. Ms Wallace must be a contortionist to bend down constantly and get herself into all the little nooks and crannies that Toto finds home. A memorable performance!

Wicked WitchThe Wizard of Oz has been new Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s first Christmas show at the Crucible and, on this form, the tremendous standard set by Daniel Evans in the past looks very likely to continue. Demand has meant that the production is extending by a week, so you have just over a week to try to get to see it – and it’s really worth your effort. Congratulations all round for a great show!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Desire Under the Elms, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Desire Under the ElmsI must have been a very mature teenager. Why else would I have read voraciously almost all Eugene O’Neill’s plays during the long summer of 1976? I’d seen Olivier’s famous Long Day’s Journey Into Night on TV and thought to myself Now That’s What I Call Drama, Volume One. There was a revival of The Iceman Cometh by the RSC that year – I didn’t see it, although the title intrigued me so much – so I decided to read up on O’Neill’s back catalogue. No one else I knew was reading him. Mourning Becomes Electra became my favourite. Eugene O’Neill sure knew how to create a fancy title.

DUTE EphraimO’Neill’s introduction to Desire Under the Elms states that it’s set in a New England farmhouse in the year 1850. No coincidence this date, as it’s the beginning of the Gold Rush to California, the newest state to join the United States, and as much a beacon of hope and inspiration as Moscow is to Chekhov’s characters. The play opens with brothers Simeon and Peter fantasising over what it would be like to leave the miserable farm behind and go hunting for gold in Californi-a (pronounced Californ-eye-ay). But their father, 75-year-old Ephraim, is out west and they feel they have to stay at home until he returns.

DUTE Simeon and EbenThey share the farmhouse with their half-brother Eben, who’s lamenting the death of his mother, and has no love lost for his father. When Ephraim returns with a young wife, Abbie, less than half his age, it’s clear she’s got her eye on inheriting the farmhouse. Simeon and Peter sell their shares in the farmhouse to Eben and head off to Californi-a to seek their fortune. This just leaves Eben and Abbie at the farmhouse. With Ephraim out working all day long, Abbie falls pregnant, and Ephraim assumes it’s his, but the truth may be somewhat different….

DUTE Peter and SimeonLike many of O’Neill’s plays, it’s based on Greek tragedy; in this case Euripides’ Hippolytus. Phaedra attempts to seduce Theseus’ chaste son Hippolytus, but when she fails she commits suicide, not before having left a letter accusing Hippolytus of rape. Theseus banishes Hippolytus as a punishment, but Hippolytus is killed by a bull, after which Theseus discovers the truth. Unlike Phaedra, Abbie’s attempts to seduce Eben are perfectly successful (not that he was chaste anyway) and it isn’t suicide that she considers but murder.

DUTE Abbie and EbenIt’s actually a very simple plot and could easily have been written for just three actors. Simeon and Peter are purely introductory characters helping to set the scene, and the other villagers are just there to fill the stage and act as Rumour. As I remember from my teenage years, Desire Under the Elms is one of the more difficult of his plays to read, because O’Neill wrote it in that interminable North American dialect drawl. Everything is “purty”, parents are “Maw” and “Paw”, they eat and drink “vittles” and “likker”. On the page it’s dry and dusty, but on the stage of the Crucible it really comes to life. I don’t have the sharpest ear, but the speech patterns came over (to me at least) as though they were from the Southern states – I clearly don’t know my American accents. By contrast, all Mrs Chrisparkle could hear was an Irish twang, which would, at least, probably accurately reflect the characters’ heritage. But none of that matters when you’re dealing with the raw emotions of an inevitable love triangle, and someone who commits an unlikely crime passionel to resolve it.

DUTE Abbie and EphraimWhen you enter the Crucible auditorium, there’s a huge visual impact from the amazing set that Chiara Stephenson has created. Long tufts of grass, wheat maybe, lurk in the distance, suggesting fields or dunes; sand covers the foreground. The simple mechanism of sweeping sand away in straight lines creates separate acting areas on the stage; most notably a demarcation wall separating the farmhouse from its grounds. Jon Clark’s moody lighting suggests different times of day and different emotional impulses at work. Nick Greenhill’s portentous sound design evokes the most realistic and invasive thunderstorm since poor Tom was on the blasted heath. There’s even a working water pump at the very front of the stage – which I have to say somewhat obstructed the view from seats B20 & 21, especially when people are seated at the dining table.

DUTE FiddlerMatthew Kelly is a fantastic Ephraim. He looks every inch the grizzled old man, wayward hair and beard unkempt through so many years of toil. If this is how he’s smartened himself up for scoring himself a 35-year-old woman, heaven knows how ragged he must have appeared before. Bellowing at the world for all its failings, and belligerent towards Eben for his perceived weakness and inadequacy, this is a man with a strong sense of his own importance and not a clue about how pathetic he really is. This is captured in his grotesque over-the-top final Act dance; he’s got a lot of life in him but no ability to shape it into something positive. It’s a mark of Mr Kelly’s great performance that you can both despise and feel sorry for him at the same time.

DUTE Matthew Kelly as EphraimMichael Shea plays Eben as a man with few principles – a thief, user of prostitutes and happy to steal his father’s woman off him for the pleasure and the power. You feel that he has so much pent-up anger inside him that he will explode at any moment. He’s a wretch, though; and Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is no better, instantly falling for this grim chap with no ambition or style. Ms Duffin really brings out all Abbie’s remorse, confusion and horror at what she’s done at the end of the play. She and Mr Shea make a truly agonised and agonising couple, as the horrendous consequences of what’s happened dawn on them. I also really liked Sule Rimi and Theo Ogundipe as Simeon and Peter, very convincing as the old hands who’ve seen it all and can’t wait to get away to a new life. In a sense, it’s a shame that we never find out what happens to them; on the other hand, that just proves how focussed O’Neill is on his menage à trois.

An excellent opportunity to catch a great cast perform a hidden classic. It’s important to keep Eugene O’Neill’s creative spirit alive! Desire Under the Elms plays until 14th October.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Of Kith and Kin, Crucible Theatre Studio, Sheffield, 30th September 2017

Of Kith and KinMothers-in-law, eh? We’ve all got them. Well, no, I realise we don’t all have them. I have one, and she’s a queen amongst mothers-in-law (she’s reading this). Mrs Chrisparkle had one; and like most mothers-in-law, the Dowager Mrs C had her moments. Daniel and Oliver both have mothers-in-law, in Chris Thompson’s new play Of Kith and Kin, currently playing at the cosy Studio theatre at the Sheffield Crucible. We never see Daniel’s mother-in-law; but we do meet Lydia, Daniel’s mum, a woman who can extinguish all hope out of both her son and his husband, with her subtle manipulation, deliberate use of gently antagonistic language and both hurt and hurtful expressions.

OKAK James Lance and Joshua SilverOf course, she doesn’t feature that highly in Daniel and Oliver’s domestic arrangements. They’re much more focussed on the fact that they’re expecting their first baby any minute now, courtesy of their friend and surrogate-mother-to-be, Priya. Priya’s already been a surrogate for another couple so she knows the ropes. However, when Lydia arrives unannounced at the baby shower, tempers flare, things are said that can’t be unsaid, and the general stress of the situation causes Priya’s waters to break.

OKAK James LanceSo far, so good; a modern family situation deftly created by Chris Thompson, with lots of comic moments and perhaps room for an underlying tragedy lurking somewhere ahead. Come Act Two – still before the interval, it’s a traditional three Act play and the cliffhanger moment comes at the end of the second act – and we suddenly realise the play has gone in a direction that’s completely unexpected. That black comedy of the first Act has turned into challenging and thrilling drama that doesn’t let up until the end. Think you’d got to know the characters quite well? Think again.

OKAK Joanna BaconIt’s hard to discuss the play in depth without giving away the plot and I’ve no wish to ruin it for you, gentle reader. Anyone can have a bad mother-in-law day, when she identifies your weak spot, pushes all the buttons and detonates an explosive response. However, not many people would experience the same disastrous fall-out as Daniel and Oliver, which is the main substance of the plot development. The play is full of fascinating and compelling themes like honesty in relationships, manipulative behaviour, loyalty, and “doing the right thing”. It’s a very grown-up piece of writing, in that it never criticises or casts doubt on the desire of a gay couple wishing to have their own child through surrogacy; not even Lydia sneers at that. It raises the issue of the inherited nature of abusive relationships, and subtly explores it in an unexpected way. In the end, only one character actually gets what they want; and it’s a very revealing insight into that kind of character.

OKAK Chetna PandyaBut there was just one thing we didn’t understand in this play – and it’s quite a big one: Priya. Priya makes a number of decisions through the course of this play and we could not understand her motivation for any of them. Maybe it’s because the play is very much written from the perspective of the character of Daniel, and perhaps Oliver too, that there’s no real attempt made to get inside her brain and emotions and examine her motives. Still, at least it makes for an unexpected and constantly surprising play.

OKAK Donna BerlinIt’s beautifully acted throughout, with James Lance as Daniel and Joshua Silver as Oliver forming a very convincing couple, bright and relaxed on the surface, bubbling with tension on the underneath. Chetna Pandya’s Priya comes across as a sensible but fun-loving best friend, although her anxieties begin to show toward the end of the first Act. Joanna Bacon turns in two superb performances, both as the sullen and difficult Lydia and the hard-nosed, manipulative Carrie; and I really enjoyed Donna Berlin’s performance as Arabelle, a character in a position of authority but with a devilish streak of unconventional humour.

OKAK Joshua Silver and James LanceIt’s certainly a play to make you think; and you may come away wondering how you’d ever trust anyone ever again. This smart production runs at the Crucible Studio for one more week until 7th October and then plays the Bush Theatre in London from 18th October till 25th November. Very enjoyable, but also uncomfortable viewing!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Julius Caesar, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27th May 2017

Julius CaesarJulius Caesar was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school. I expect that was true for a number of people. It’s a superb introduction to Shakespeare because it’s very accessible, it’s got loads of everyday phrases that it’s fun to recognise, it helps you with your Latin History; and it’s got some famous characters, and a ghost, and a soothsayer, and a baying mob, and lots and lots of deaths. What more could a fifteen-year-old schoolboy want?

CassiusMuch to my own irritation, I’ve had to wait all these years to see it on stage. For years it seemed like no one would touch it with an SPQR standard, and now suddenly everyone’s doing it. The RSC are staging it this summer; I’ve already got tickets to see the new version at the new Bridge Theatre in London next February, and now it’s popped up at one of my favourite theatres, the Sheffield Crucible. So I was really keen to see this new production.

Caesar and CalpurniaI’m sure you know the story; in brief, Julius Caesar is in charge of Rome, a noble man but a bighead, who likes nothing more than to strut his stuff and let the power go to his head. Around him are several politicians whom he believes are all loyal, but insurrection is brewing. Cassius (who has a lean and hungry look) is assembling allies to do away with Caesar For The Good Of Rome and nothing whatever to do with their own personal fortune, of course. Many sign up, but the big name they want is Brutus, and Brutus is an honourable man. Nevertheless, Cassius convinces him to join the merry band of murderers and assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March (nasty). But no one has really taken into account Caesar’s pal Mark Anthony, and how he will react to the dirty deed… which is with mob-altering oratory.

BrutusIn these days of political intrigue, elections, referendums, Brexit, and what have you, this play seems more relevant than ever. In the UK, with so many of the political parties now led by women and with women in some of our highest governmental positions, it seems a good idea for some of Caesar’s male associates to be played by women: Casca, Metellus Cimber, Trebonius, Popilius, as well as one of the post-Caesar triumvirate, Octavius Caesar. And, of course, Cassius, who thinks too much. These gender changes not only add an additional level of sexual intrigue (just how friendly are Cassius and Brutus?) but they also really help to modernise the story, and, coupled with Ben Stones’ modern staging, this is very much a Julius Caesar for the 21st century.

Mark AntonyWhen you enter the Crucible auditorium, for a split second you think you’ve come at the wrong time and they’ve laid the stage out for the snooker championships. But no, that’s not a snooker table, but a fine old board table, suitable for grand dining, or devious conspiracy. And the knives laid out upon it are more for cutting a Consul than slicing a steak. This adds an instant inevitability to the whole thing. As soon as you see Cassius and her friends observing Caesar’s showbizzy entrance with distaste, you know his number’s up. The other knock-out design feature is how the front row of the theatre has been converted into UN-style governmental seating, with a phone, a mic, a lamp, a writing pad and a plush chair at every station. This then perfectly represents the Senate House when Caesar deigns to call and pontificate; and just as Caesar thinks he’s as constant as the northern star, he’s dead for a ducat (wrong play, sorry). The sight of all the senators dipping their hands in Caesar’s blood is gruesomely effective, because today we only think of that phrase being figurative, not literal. Other visual highlights include Mark Anthony grabbing the dead Caesar from out of his coffin and the mob tearing the meek and mild Cinna the Poet to death. Never was anyone more in the wrong place at the wrong time.

LigariusNew Artistic Director of the Crucible, Robert Hastie has really set the bar high with this, his first Sheffield production. The staging is stirring and on a grand scale, using parts of the Crucible that you never knew existed, like the balcony above the stage, or the removed Row E from the seats. The splendid vision for the play deserves some excellent performances and fortunately, this is what it gets. Jonathan Hyde’s Caesar is proud and vain (but not excessively so), mature and a little world-weary; I particularly enjoyed his scene with Calpurnia when she was trying to prevent him from attending the Senate and so at first he declines the invitation to go and get murdered but when he is convinced to do so by Cinna he mockingly turns on Calpurnia for fussing so much. It was like a little snapshot into a private domestic tiff. But she was right. Mr Hyde also turns in a very chilling performance as the ghost.

Brutus and PortiaThe splendid Samuel West is a very thoughtful and dignified Brutus, quietly listening and weighing up all the evidence; not vacillating as I am sure the role might sometimes be played. Once he has decided to join with the conspirators he is as gung-ho about the project as anyone, but he still retains his innate honourable status. Even more gripping, Zoe Waites makes a fantastic Cassius; edgy, pushy, manipulative; with an eye for the main chance and not afraid to back track when she’s in trouble. She has a terrific stage presence and a voice that rings out in the darkest depths of the rear stalls. And Eliot Cowan is a magnificent Mark Antony, switching from lager lout in his first scenes with Caesar, through the great oratory scene where he brings the mob on his side by manipulating their emotions as the King of Rhetoric, to his triumvirate appearance where he’s more militant than Labour in the early 80s. All the other roles are played powerfully and intelligently – there’s not a weak spot anywhere. Members of the Sheffield Casca and CinnaPeople’s Theatre act as the mob and a fantastic job they do of it.

I really loved this production – it was everything I hoped it would be; relevant, exciting, memorable, and brought superbly up to date with its staging and casting. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Production Photos by Johan Persson

Review – La Strada, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 27th May 2017

La StradaHow come I’d never heard of Fellini’s film La Strada? According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, it has become “one of the most influential films ever made”, according to the American Film Institute. It won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1957 and it was placed fourth in the 1992 British Film Institute directors’ list of cinema’s top 10 films. And I’ve never heard of it.

Audrey BrissonI’m wondering if I’m not alone in this ignorance, because I understand this touring production has been blighted by very poor audiences wherever it goes, and for last Saturday’s matinee at the vast Lyceum theatre in Sheffield, we were two among – I would guess – about 60 people? At least it meant no queue at the bar. I’m also guessing that the majority of that 60 were definitely fans of the film as they had no hesitation in giving it a standing ovation come curtain call time, so the production is definitely doing something right.

La Strada castBut I confess, I had no real interest in seeing it beyond mild curiosity, apart from the fact that I wanted to go to Sheffield to see Julius Caesar (of which, more soon) and I always like to pack two shows into a Sheffield Saturday if possible. I had, however, seen that it had received some good reviews; so, we defaulted into seeing La Strada.

Bart Soroczynski and castIt’s a simple story. A gullible girl is sold by her impoverished mother to a circus strongman named Zampano for 10,000 lire, and she goes on the road with him as his personal assitant, ostensibly to help him with his act. But he is a bully, is well known for getting into scrapes wherever he goes, and frequently will inflict corporal punishment on the girl for not obeying or supporting him. Along the way they meet another street entertainer/circus type Il Matto (the Fool). He’s kind to the girl, but obviously has some unfinished history with Zampano, and he does whatever he can to ridicule or discredit the old beast. Can the three of them all get along together, or will one of them crack under the pressure?

Its in the airIt’s a smart looking production, with a busy set and effective costumes by Katie Sykes; it also sounds great, with the musical instruments being played by the majority of the on-stage performers; and there are even some circus tricks to appreciate. Whilst cradling our interval Sauvignon Blancs, Bart Soroczynski (playing Il Matto) nipped into the bar with his accordion and had a chat to everyone, which was a nice touch. Mr Soroczynski cuts a very good fool; one of those very sorrowful looking clowns for whom life never seems to have much going for it – nevertheless they struggle on. He blends very well into the stylised background for this show – which is an overwhelming air of sadness, of resignation, of expectation of doom. In the other major roles, Stuart Goodwin certainly looks the part as the bully strongman Zampano, and Audrey Brisson is charmingly naïve as Gelsomina the girl, and she plays a mean trumpet.

Audrey Brisson and Stuart GoodwinBut right from the start it all felt very introverted, almost as though one were stumbling upon someone else’s private grief, and you were just an intruding onlooker and not a participant. One of the problems with the show that we found was that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I cared two hoots about what would happen to the protagonists. And I think that’s at least in part because, for whatever reason, we did not get under the characters’ skins. If Miss Brisson was meant to tear at our heartstrings with her vulnerability and purity, it didn’t happen; if Mr Goodwin was meant to menace us with his swagger and intimidation, that didn’t happen either. And I certainly didn’t believe any sense of regret from Mr Goodwin at the end, despite his wailings.

Bart SoroczynskiIn short, it was all just a bit bland; generally well performed but not exactly interesting. The second half is massively more entertaining than the first, so if you make it to the interval, do stay till the end. The show left us totally unmoved and totally unrewarded; but I can imagine if you’re a fan of the film, it will be a whole lot more fascinating to you than it was to us. It’s now finished its UK tour but is playing at the new Other Palace Theatre in Victoria until 8th July.

Stuart GoodwinP. S. The programme advises that the show’s running time is 2 hrs 15 minutes. However, our show came in at a much niftier 1 hr 50 minutes. I can only assume that they’ve excised a big chunk out of it during the course of the run; to which I say, very good call.

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – Annie Get Your Gun, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 7th January 2017

Annie Get Your GunFor the second part of our Sheffield extravaganza, Lady Duncansby, Sir William, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our esteemed friends the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with friends and family around the New Year, seeing what musical theatre delights the Crucible have arranged each year. In the past, we’ve been spoilt by seeing Company, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Anything Goes, and Show Boat; how will this year’s offering Annie Get Your Gun compare?

agyg1I hadn’t seen this show before. It was always a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, having seen it at the London Coliseum not long after the war. I remember her singing You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun with alarming enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. The show is jam-packed with show toons that are long-lasting standards, but I’d forgotten the rare beauty of I Got the Sun in the Morning which I hadn’t heard for decades. I also realised this was the first time I’d seen a musical written by that much-renowned composer Irving Berlin. It would be fascinating to compare his style with his contemporaries like Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein.

agyg2Production values, as always at the Crucible, would be high. The choreography is by Alistair David, who had added his touch of magic to all those previous Crucible Christmas shows. Playing Annie is Anna-Jane Casey, who’s always a hit whether she’s lampooning others in Forbidden Broadway or stuck in a rut of a relationship in Company or hoofing her way into the talkies with Mack and Mabel. Feisty and dynamic, but also a brilliant singer and dancer, there’s probably no better fit for the role of sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.

agyg3Ah yes, Annie Oakley. I guess this was the aspect that I had overlooked when I enthusiastically booked all those months ago. Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, the original sharp-shooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So the setting is pure Cowboys and Indians, Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, and much talk of redface and paleface. And then you have the arguments. Oh my God, the arguments; they’re so tedious. The show predates Porter’s Kiss Me Kate by two years, but the structural similarity between having cantankerous, nay bitchy, arguments between the two leading characters in both shows is obvious. In real life, Annie and Frank had a long, harmonious marriage. The show, however, is powered by the imagined antagonism between the two caused by jealousy.

agyg4I may as well confess it; I really, really wanted to like this show for so many reasons, but I’m afraid I really, really didn’t. It’s not the production’s fault – on the whole – although I think a little more set design might have helped explain and contextualise a few of the scenes a bit more. No, it’s the fault of the show itself. It survives on discord and rivalry. Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song goes. But it’s not portrayed like a schoolyard chant, a little silliness where two assertive people each want to have the last word; it’s portrayed as a serious, permanent rift in a relationship. In Kiss Me Kate, you just know that Fred and Lilli have a powerful physical attraction that’s going to knock everything else sideways. But by the time you get to Anything You Can Do, and Annie and Frank start reopening old wounds yet again, you just want to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up.

agyg5That’s at the end – but let me go back to the beginning. The lights dim, and a disembodied voice from the back starts to sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Eventually your eyes locate Frank at the back of the auditorium, singing it with pompous gravity as though it were a hymn. The ensemble come out on stage and sing and dance as the number progresses – but there’s no set so you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who they are, and you wonder why the show’s big song gets such an early airing – surely it’s wasted in this warm-up position? They’ve got a solution to that – repeat it ad nauseam a few more times during the evening. [If you’re interested, it wasn’t the opening number in the original 1946 production; the song sequence changed with the 1999 Broadway revival] Maybe it’s a note of respect to the daddy of all 40s musicals, Oklahoma!, and its unconventional opening with Curly offstage singing about a beautiful morning. That works brilliantly, because we all understand the appeal of a beautiful morning without any further context. There’re no people like show people, on the other hand, just comes across as arrogant and self-aggrandising. We’re show people – you aren’t – therefore we’re better than you. You have no context within the show as yet for this outrageous statement but even so you already resent the characters for their big-headedness.

agyg6Now I accept that the first scene after this opening number shows cast members from Buffalo Bill’s show being turned away for accommodation at Wilson’s hotel because they’re showbiz types. They can’t be trusted, so the implied glamour of that overweening first number is turned into a sweet and sour rejection. There’s no business like show business is maybe ironic, after all. But that idea doesn’t get taken any further. Just occasionally, Anna-Jane Casey lets us see a little of Annie’s sensitive side. Ben Lewis, playing Frank, however, gives us a one-dimensional sharp shootin’ suitor, with precious little insight into his motivations or character. Shame – having seen him in Forbidden Broadway and Candide I know he’s capable of much more.

agyg7To mirror the front row disharmony between Annie and Frank you have second row friction between the two show manager rivals, Nicolas Colicos’ Buffalo Bill and Mike Denman’s Pawnee Bill. Mr Denman has a go at bringing a little characterisation and magnetism to his role but Mr Colicos gave me no insight into his character at all. Of the other cast members, only Maggie Service seemed to have any real sense of occasion, portraying Dolly as a lovelorn, overlooked but will-stop-at-nothing type who is both villain and object of sympathy. The ensemble gave it all they’d got though, which really helped me get through it, and their dancing was excellent. But, all in all, I’m afraid I found the show quite boring and lacking in theatrical magic. When Annie’s sharp-shootin’ at balloons, one of them failed to burst, which really did nothing for the overall effect. Nevertheless, it was only the presence of Anna-Jane Casey that made the whole show watchable.

agyg8It really split our group too – Mrs C and the Sheriff agreed with me that it was lacklustre and dated; Lady L quite enjoyed it but couldn’t get into it; Lady D, Sir William and the young Baron all enjoyed it. You might very well too, and it’s on until 21st January. A good enough production but I think the show should be consigned to the history books. Disappointed!

Review – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Lyceum Theatre, 7th January 2017

Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIt’s that time of the year again when Mrs Chrisparkle and I take Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William for our annual Sheffield shindig, comprising of panto in the afternoon and Crucible show in the evening. It’s never failed yet. Of course, the main attraction of seeing the Sheffield panto is one’s annual fix of Damian Williams as Pantomime Dame. No one can do it quite like him. And it will come as no surprise that, as always, this season’s Sheffield panto was a laugh-a-minute engaging delight.

sw1So then, Snow White. We all know the story. Poor girl and prince fall in love but wicked queen gets her to eat a bad apple and falls into a coma. Should’ve gone to Waitrose. Prince wakes her up with a kiss and they live happily ever after (Sondheim’s Into The Woods notwithstanding.) So what’s different about this Snow White? Two of the villagers are performed by circus artistes, so there are some balancing acts and roller skating to enjoy. And, naturally, it features some Sheffield-only specialities. The voice (and indeed disembodied face) of the voice in the Mirror (who tells the queen who is the fairest of them all, keep up) is none other than Broomhill’s own Michael Palin, delivering his wisdom with a thick South Yorkshire accent and saying “Up the Blades” a little too often. This year, the famous returning Lyceum Theatre bench/ghost scene has been up-spec’d, as we are called on to don 3-D glasses to see real ghosties – not just actors covered with sheets – looming at the back of the set. This works really well – they interact with the audience with alarming dexterity, and the whole thrilling scene is worthy of its own spot at Disneyland.

sw2And of course, you have Damian Williams as Nurse Nellie, in a series of preposterous outfits, including as the biggest Brownie you ever saw (outfit was good value – 50% off Guide price, boom, boom). His interplay with the boys and girls of the ensemble is as wicked as ever, with sideswipes like “three years at RADA for this”. The ensemble, by the way, are really excellent this year, full of fun and really good singers and dancers. When Prince Charming first arrives, everyone believes he is looking for a wife. At the very thought of it, one of the village girls swoons. When the Prince clarifies that that might not necessarily be the case, one of the village boys swoons. Very nicely done!

sw3But the absolute highlight of the panto was the sequence towards the end when Herman the Henchman, played with great enthusiasm by Richard Franks, finally gets to realise his dream of singing to a live audience, as he turns into Freddie Mercury and presents a sequence of Queen numbers with full backing cast all Mercury-moustachioed. Damian Williams came on for no more than a few seconds looking the spitting image of Mercury in the I Want To Break Free video. The Bohemian Rhapsody element was best of all, as the stage went black and the lights just picked out the seven moustachioed dwarfs in formation giving it the full Scaramouche Fandango treatment. Inspired and brilliant.

sw4Without getting into awkward pitfalls on the subject, I was pleased to see that the seven dwarfs were really that, rather than seven uncomfortable actors hobbling around on their knees. It’s patronising and it looks ridiculous. Our seven chaps brought loads of character to the show, and I particularly enjoyed Deano Whatton as trendy Groover, Graham Hughes as the cynical Brian, and Craig Garner as Cheeky, who sings an overly sentimental song to Snow White yet manages to stay on the right side of mawkish. We’d seen Mr Garner a couple of years ago when he played Dick Whittington’s rather loveable cat, and it’s good to see him back. I loved Jite Ighorodje’s (Brains) game with the audience where he randomly multiplies any set of numbers they threw at him – he’s one smart cookie. And big up to Andrew Martin, who plays Sarge, for his incredible sporting achievements – he’s currently the world number two ranked singles player in Para-Badminton.

sw5Snow White also presents an opportunity for a feisty, larger than life lady to get her teeth into the villainous role of the wicked queen – in this show she’s named Ivannah, which, surprisingly, isn’t used for a series of puns. Wendi Peters takes the role with great gusto; she’s a fantastic singer and the production really uses that strength to great effect. Phil Gallagher is excellent as the friendly and engaging Muddles, and I actually felt sorry for him when his kiss didn’t wake Snow White up. I know, I’m getting very soft in my dotage. Oliver Watton sang well and looked the part of Prince Charming whilst fending off Nurse Nellie’s passionate kisses; and Joanna Sawyer’s powerful voice made for quite a forceful Snow White. They looked great together and will have beautiful babies.

img_8471One final unusual twist – we were encouraged to take photos of the final scene and post them on social media! I guess everyone always wants to see pictures of a Royal Wedding. So here are a few of mine! 2017’s panto willimg_8473 be Mother Goose and will be Damian Williams’ tenth anniversary of playing the dame at the Lyceum. I trust they present him with his own bench, engraved with the words: well! We’ll have to do it again then, won’t we! I have no doubt we’ll be there.

img_8475P. S. No better way to end a panto than to have streamers cascading from the ceiling. I managed to wrap a good strong one round my head and chest, img_8479determined to take it home. Then I saw a little girl two seats away from me desperately looking for some streamer-souvenir. Bravely, I vowed to give her mine if she didn’t find her own. She did!! I kept mine!! Win-win!!!

Production photos (apart from the Royal Wedding photos) by Robert Day