Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2011
The Hippodrome prides itself on staging the country’s biggest and most lavish pantomime in the country and this year is no exception. The production values are astounding in this glitzy show that mixes technical wizardry with star quality.
The big names on the poster this year are: Brian Conley as a moon-walking, water-pistolling, sing-a-long-ing, cheeky-faced Buttons – he works the crowd extremely well and it’s a big room to work; making her panto debut is the glamorous Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother – she is given plenty to do in what can be an incidental role and her lines are ripe with innuendo; but while Conley is spouting references to Timmy Mallett and the Crazy Frog, the funniest and most up-to-date material comes from Basil Brush! He moves around like a miniature, furry Davros, singing and dancing and interacting with the crowd. The operator in the box must be knackered by the end. Basil Brush is “living” proof that acts who have been around a long time can still appeal, keeping up with the times without changing the essence of what made him great in the first place. Other old-school acts could learn a lot from the little puppet with the posh voice. It is marvellous to see today’s children taking Basil to their hearts just as it is wonderful to see them being enthralled by the magic of theatre and hearing them laughing their little heads off throughout the show.
What you may think are the main characters, Cinderella and Prince Charming, are sidelined somewhat and the plot takes quite a while to get going as Conley and Bellingham dominate proceedings from the outset. This means that minor role, Dandini, is pushed out to become almost irrelevant – the business of swapping identity with the Prince is given lip service but never capitalised on. Ugly sisters, Kelly and Tulisa (Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins) have more muscle (in more than one sense). Their outfits, which I am given to believe were mainly their own design and manufacture, are outlandish and colourful, matched by their rapport and characterisations. The scene in which they force Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball remains one of the most dramatic and powerful moments in all panto.
So, the show takes a few detours but when the plot gets going, the Hippodrome does it very well indeed. The transformation scene is fast and flashy, ending the first act with pyrotechnics and a flying horse. The second act is more traditional in its structure; at the ball, Conley performs an outrageously funny routine involving a violin and an errant finger but the Prince and Cinders are allowed their time in the spotlight too. It is very satisfying to see the tried-and-tested routines and stage business played out so well, along with the new ingredients (as long as they don’t subvert the genre or hold up proceedings).
I am uncomfortable with live animals on stage. However enchanting their appearance and antics and no matter how kindly they may be treated, it doesn’t sit well with me to see them performing tricks in a manner outside their natural behaviour. Adults and children alike were entranced but this overly sensitive veggie prefers not to see that kind of thing.
Preferable was Conley’s interaction with kids from the audience who were brought onto the stage for questions and a giggly rendition of Old Macdonald Had A Farm. In fact, interplay with the audience as a whole was very strong. Given the scale of the auditorium, it requires a certain type of performer to keep everyone happy. Conley certainly manages that and it is a shame his kind of act is no longer fashionable in these days of TOWIE and endless dredges for “talent”. Conley needs a vehicle, and I don’t mean Buttons’s flying motorcycle, to get him back on the telly. As long as he steers clear of the schmaltzy crooning, which veers dangerously close to pub-singing, I would tune in.
For me though the evening belonged to Basil Brush. I’m glad to see he’s keeping his hand in.