Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 3rd January, 2013
A few months ago, I attended the final of Stoke’s Top Talent, a local contest for local people. The winner, Carrie-Ann Williams, won a part in the pantomime. Not just a walk-on and five minutes in the spotlight but a fully integrated role. And so, there she is, opening the show as the Fairy Godmother, speaking in thankless rhyming couplets and wafting her wand about. Although still studying, Williams fits into the cast of professionals seamlessly. She gets to extend her acting experience, when the Fairy Godmother goes in disguise as an old beggar woman, searching for firewood, but, of course, she is also allowed to do what she does best and show us why she, rightfully won the talent contest. She closes the first act with her rendition of Nessun Dorma; this is no less incongruous than some of the pop songs we are subjected to, and, when the flying horse lifts Cinderella’s carriage out of the dry ice and the aria surges to its climax, it is truly spine-tingling. It is heartening to see the contest organisers following through on their promise.
The panto belongs to Jonathan Wilkes, local hero. He co-directs as well as dominating the action as Buttons; camp and cheeky bordering on puerile, Wilkes is an energetic presence, thoroughly at home in this genre and, indeed, this venue. He can do no wrong with this crowd and it is easy to see why. Tall, good-looking with a pleasant, old school pop-singer voice, Wilkes rules the roost.
He is supported by his co-director Christian Patterson as ugly sister Stacey – these two are clearly on the same wavelength and are enjoying themselves as much as the audience – and Torchwood’s Kai Owen as Nessa, Stacey’s equally obnoxious sibling. As you’d expect the costumes and the banter are outrageous. There is an emphasis on toilet humour and physical comedy, peppered with local namedropping and pop culture references. It’s knockabout fun, perhaps slapdash on the surface, but Wilkes and Patterson know exactly what they’re doing.
Eric Potts’s script focuses on the comedy. The jokes are quick fire and relentless, old, new, borrowed and blue, but Potts is also an advocate of the traditional pantomime routines, and so we get “Who’s in first” and “Busy Bee, Busy Bee” – the first a dazzling example of cross-talk, the second hilarious slapstick that still works brilliantly.
Rebecca Lisewski’s Cinderella is confidant rather than hard-done by, with a strong singing voice. Her duets with Jonathan Bremner’s dashing Prince Charming blend their voices well, although I found the choice of Katy Perry’s Firework a little jarring. I guess I’ve never felt like a plastic bag.
Jamie Tyler’s Dandini is an enthusiastic, upper-class twit, mugging and girning like a cartoon character, keeping the energy levels high in scenes that are basically exposition and Ian Redford’s Baron Hardup is a bumbling drunkard, ably supporting the shenanigans – he could be given more to do.
The show is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, managing to be up-to-date and traditional at the same time. Of all I have seen this season, this panto has the strongest local feel, which is encouraging to see in a venue that is part of a national chain. Wilkes, Patterson and Potts deliver the goods and pack the house. The management must be stoked.