Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th November, 2021
It’s great to be back at the beautiful Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, after a year with no pantomime. This year’s offering hits all the right notes, living up to our expectations of the famous story while delivering a few surprises along the way.
Writer-director Will Brenton tinkers with the conventional approach in a number of ways. First up, the Wicked Sisters aren’t dames! Gasp! They’re two young ladies played by female actors! Gasp! While initially I feel cheated out of a couple of drag queens, this spoilt rotten pair soon win me over. As Tess and Claudia (there’s a Strictly theme here) Ella Biddlecombe and Britt Lenting make a strong impression. Their nastiness is purely on the inside.
Don’t worry, the show still has a dame, in the form of seasoned old pro Ian Adams, making a welcome return to the Grand as Penny Pockets, something of an extraneous character in terms of the plot, but a safe pair of hands if you’re looking for fun.
Brenton adds an evil stepmother to the mix, Baroness Hardup, played with relish by Julie Stark, who makes Cruella look like a pussycat. She is an excellent contrast to Evie Pickerill’s appealing Cinderella, who is sweet and lively, but can also sing like an angel. Every female performer in this show has a superb singing voice, it appears, none more so than the mighty Denise Pearson (of 5-Star fame) as the Fairy Godmother, sending shivers spinewards. Pearson gets a few good numbers – a wise move!
Among the fellas, Tam Ryan’s Buttons has real star quality. Despite the pangs of his unrequited love, Buttons brings the funny, and Ryan never flags for a second.
Topping the bill are the Pritchard brothers, AJ and Curtis. Formerly a pro-dancer on Strictly, AJ is, of course, Prince Charming, twirling, prancing and sparkling around, as handsome as a Disney Prince action figure. The choreography by Racky Plews plays to AJ’s strengths, affording him plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, and he is, it has to be said, a lovely little mover. Curtis, as Dandini, perhaps has more to prove, and he does it, and then some! He is an accomplished dancer too, can sing well and even juggle, in a winning performance that cements his reputation as a star in his own right.
On the whole, Brenton’s changes work. Importantly, he preserves the key moments and executes them very well: The breaking of Buttons’s heart, for example, and arguably the cruellest scene in all panto, the tearing up of Cinderella’s invitation to the ball. Mark Walters’s set comprises video images as a changing backdrop, which are all very well, but I miss the old-school gauzes and cloths flying in and out. The videos are too slick, robbing the show of some of its traditional theatricality.
There is much to enjoy here, well-worn routines, groanworthy gags, and plenty of audience participation—from a COVID-safe distance, of course. It all adds up to a grand night out with something for all the family. AJ dancing and Denise Pearson singing? There’s your money’s worth right there.