Author Archives: williamstafford

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard!

Mediums at Large

THE HAUNTING OF BLAINE MANOR

Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, Friday 28th January 2022

This chiller from writer-director Joe O’Byrne covers a lot of familiar territory.  A motley assortment of characters assembles in a remote country house.  There’s a storm.  There’s a séance in the offing – until events get in the way, as debunker of the paranormal Dr Roy Earle pours scorn and bourbon on the outlandish claims made by the likes of Adolphus Scarabus (medium) and the Great Cairo (extra large).  Also present is journalist Vivian Rutledge, and Vincent De Lambre, to provide other points of view and to enliven the evening with stories…It has the feel of an old movie.  You can quite easily imagine Bob Hope playing the sardonic, wise-cracking American Dr Earle.  Tonight with Bob Hope presumably unavailable, we get Peter Slater, who does a bang-up job.  It’s through his eyes that we view the other characters.  Like him, we don’t take them seriously.

As Vivien, Jo Haydock brings femininity and elegance to an otherwise all-male cast.  No shrinking violet, her Vivien asserts her views and adds considerably to the overall atmosphere.  Andrew Yates’s Cairo is a larger-than-life, comic characterisation; as Act One goes on, you think there’s more ham and cheese here than in your average toasted sandwich – but, as with all the great ghost stories, things are not necessarily as they seem…  

Joe O’Byrne himself appears as Grady, the butler, bringing a gentle humour to proceedings.  And there’s more to Grady than meets the eye…  James Allen’s wild-haired, theatrical psychic Scarabus is effective, but perhaps a little underused.  And as for Vincent De Lambre, well, I could listen to Ed Barry’s velvet voice reading a telephone directory.

Much use is made of silences broken by sudden loud noises.  A lot of information is presented, about the house, about the characters’ pasts, but O’Grady, directing, prevents things from becoming too static or bogged down by exposition.  One of the most difficult things to achieve on stage is to frighten the audience.  This piece has some highly atmospheric moments and a few good jumps.

What begins as a pastiche of creaky old movies really takes off in Act Two.  The characters up the hokey talk, banging on about demons and ‘alternative parallel dimensions’ (whatever they are) and the lighting and sound effects, used sparingly in Act One, are really brought on board… But again, things aren’t necessarily as they seem.  It all culminates in a clever denouement I don’t see coming, even though all the clues are laid out for us throughout.  Clever stuff.

★★★★

May be an image of 6 scallywags an' Ye' yabberin'

Neverland Side Story

BAT OUT OF HELL

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th January, 2022

The mighty Jim Steinman’s contribution to the jukebox musical genre strings together songs made famous by Meat Loaf, Steinman himself, and even Celine Dion.  Each number is a mini rock opera in itself, but Steinman’s plot borrows heavily from Romeo & Juliet and also Peter Pan & Wendy, I kid you not.  Set in a post-apocalyptic world where chemical warfare has mutated some of the population into eternal 18-year-olds, (The ‘Lost’) who are very much the have-nots in this society, and the haves, represented by bigwig Falco and his family, their building towering over the landscape.  Lost boy Strat falls for Falco’s daughter, Raven, and their relationship gives rise to conflict.  There’s a nurse character too – Joelle Moses’s Zahara – and there’s also a Tink(erbell) whose jealousy of Strat/Peter and Raven/Wendy’s relationship leads to a betrayal, with Falco/Capulet/Captain Hook bent on destruction of the Lost (Boys).  Curiously, Steinman’s song, Lost Boys and Golden Girls is absent from the score…

As leading man Strat, Glenn Adamson is a firecracker of energy with a powerful rock voice.  He has a tendency to take his top off, Iggy Pop-style (something which Meat Loaf never did).  Also strong is Martha Kirby’s Raven.  Her rendition of Heaven Can Wait is superb.  Unfortunately, the staging dilutes its impact.  Much of the action is performed to camera and projected onto screens built into the set, and so, rather than having Kirby singing directly to the audience, she stands in an interior portion of the set facing away; yes, we can see her clearly on the screen, but the device serves to keep us at a remove from the emotional power of the song.

The live camera feed sometimes lends a rock video aspect to proceedings.  At others, it’s a bit like reality TV.  Mostly though, it’s intrusive and distracting, an example of the production getting in its own way, which happens now and then.

That apart, there is a lot to enjoy.  The singing is top notch from everyone in this exuberant ensemble.  Highlights for me include Joelle Moses and James Chisholm’s Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.  Later, their Dead Ringer For Love generates a party atmosphere.  Martha Kirby’s It’s All Coming Back To Me Now is impressively emotive.  This power ballad becomes a delicate quartet when Adamson joins in, along with Rob Fowler and Sharon Sexton as Raven’s parents. Fowler and Sexton deliver the disillusionment and bitterness of the failing marriage of Falco and Sloane.  Fowler is hugely enjoyable as the villainous patriarch, and he too is prone to getting his top off.  Iggy Pop has a lot to answer for.  Sexton’s Sloane starts off amusingly sloshed, but the characterisation is not without vulnerabilities and depths.

The absolute pinnacle of the show is the title track, which brings the first act to a stunning climax.  Staged and sung to perfection, this is quintessential Steinman, big and brash, and heartfelt and overblown, and just sensational.

The dialogue is melodramatic and is declaimed in a heightened style.  It could do with more laughs, but Steinman’s anthemic tunes and the gothic poetry of his lyrics prove irresistible and more than compensate for the shortcomings of the script.  It’s rousing stuff and the cast sing their heads off, with energy that’s more infectious than a covid variant.  Steinman was a genius as a songwriter and this searing, soaring show reminds us unequivocally of that.

☆☆☆☆

Glenn Adamson as Strat and Martha Kirby as Raven (Photo: Chris Davis)

Snow White’s All Right

SNOW WHITE

Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, Thursday 30th December, 2021

As the pantomime season draws to a close, I am pleased to be able to fit one more in before the end of its run.  And what a cracker it turns out to be!

Headlining the cast as the Wicked Queen, Maureen Nolan is a striking, commanding figure, darkly glamourous, oozing evil and delivering some wicked one-liners.  Her big number, Alice Cooper’s Poison, as she cooks up the apple and her old woman disguise, is a definite highlight.  Nolan is still in great voice and the dancers, choreographed by Phillip Joel, add vigour and atmosphere to proceedings.

In the title role, Rebecca Keatley from Children’s television, makes for a vivacious, instantly likeable and upbeat leading lady, exuding friendliness.  She also reveals herself to be an excellent singer—this panto is riddled with well-known songs, from the charts and from West End shows.  Keatley’s vocals go extremely well with those of the mighty Keith Jack, in the role of the Prince.  Their duet is stunning.

Keith Jack is an ideal Prince, with his rugged good looks, soft Scottish burr and powerful singing voice.  As an extra treat, he gets his kit off (for plot reasons) and, in chains, belts out Close Every Door, because it would be a waste of one of the best Josephs in the business not to! 

Much of the comedy comes from Sean McKenzie’s naughty Dame Nellie Furlough, and Mike Newman as everybody’s friend, Muddles.  Together and separately, these two are easy to laugh at, and they work the crowd expertly.

The good fairy (Wendy Abrahams) gets plenty to do.  Being a stickler where panto is concerned, I am pleased to report she speaks in rhyming couplets.  Not only is she our narrator and the story’s supernatural influence, Fairy Wendy also forms a double act with Theo The Mouse, an incorrigible puppet who gets the younger members of the audience squealing with delight.

Appearing as Igor, the Queen’s henchman, is Wink Taylor, clearly enjoying himself in this larger-than-life character.  It turns out that Taylor also wrote the script.  Clearly he is someone who loves the traditional elements of pantomime as much as I do.  He gets the tone and balance exactly right.  The story is strong and every element exists to serve the plot.  Even the mischievous mouse puppet!  I suspect Taylor has a hand in that as well…

The show delivers enjoyment from curtain up to finale.  Act One closes with a rousing rendition of You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hanson!  And it works superbly.  Moments of drama (e.g. Igor meeting Snow White in the forest to kill her!) are offset with silliness, and it all fits together wonderfully well.  Director Richard Cheshire ensures the pace never flags while giving scenes room to breathe.

Absent from the title are the seven dwarfs.  In the show they are referred to as ‘kind little men’ and they’re played by children in oversized cartoon heads, performing dumb-show to pre-recorded voices with a Dad’s Army theme, which is a clever idea but probably over the normal-sized heads of the kids in the audience.  Also, I think sometimes the kids in the big heads can’t see where they’re going, as the blocking of these scenes can suffer.  Given their limitations, it’s no wonder they are not given any fun stuff to do.

A traditional, well-made panto with most of the elements you could hope for (what, no slosh scene?). The Gatehouse has a hit on its hands, and its great to see this newly refurbished regional venue so well supported.  I’ll definitely be back next year to see if they can top this one.

☆☆☆☆

Sean McKenzie, Rebecca Keatley and Mike Newman

Return of the Slack

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 21st December, 2021

After two years, pantomime is back in Birmingham, with the Hippodrome pulling out all the stops as usual to provide the glitteriest, spangliest, sparkliest show imaginable.  The story of Goldilocks is well-known but too slight to fill a full-length show—the events of the tale are covered here in the time it takes to perform the Donna Summer classic, Hot Stuff!  The rest of the time is largely padding, hung loosely around a scrap of plot about rival circuses.  It is a variety show, when all’s said and done, yet the circus theme allows the inclusion of magicians, tightrope walkers, even stunt motorcycles in the ‘Globe of Speed’, performing feats even more death-defying than the audience members who are not wearing masks.

The show is packed with entertainment, but it takes a while to get going with not one, two, or three but FOUR opening numbers in a row.  Two of these should be cut.  The villain gets a song, setting out his stall, and that’s fair enough, but when the dame’s first appearance is a po-faced ballad about dreams and believing, you long for something funny to happen.

King of Birmingham panto, Matt Slack makes a welcome and overdue return, giving us exactly what we’ve come to expect and what he’s so good at.  He’s Ringo the Ringmaster (although it’s left to Goldilocks to introduce most of the acts!) but really he’s the clown.  His audience-handling is second-to-none, and his physical comedy is hilarious.  There is a sequence of impressions that impresses, and you can see why the Hippodrome gets him back year after year after year, because of the fun and the level of skill he brings.  Bring on next Christmas, when he’ll be giving us his Dick (Whittington, that is).

Top of the bill is superstar and heartthrob, Jason Donovan, making his panto debut as the villainous Count Ramsay of Erinsborough.  Donovan is deliciously evil in the role, dressed like the Child-Catcher, and he’s in great voice.  He proves himself a great sport and clearly has a strong rapport with Slack on and off-stage.  I can’t bring myself to boo him.

Also back is Doreen Tipton, appearing this time as a lazy lion tamer.  Doreen’s deadpan delivery is a hoot, and she has fun in spite of herself.  One of the best dames in the business, Andrew Ryan is Betty Barnum, in a range of outfits of increasing extravagance.  Ryan shines brightest in the comedy moments, displaying perfect timing.  It’s the earnest musical numbers that don’t seem to fit.  Even Be A Clown is a bit dour.

In the title role, Samantha Dorrance is a knockout as a sweet and perky Goldilocks.  The Three Bears I find a little disturbing, with their full-body costumes and human faces.  Considering the quality of the rest of the animals in the show (a marvellous gorilla, and an astonishing elephant…) and the sky-high production values of the rest of it, the Three Bears seem a little short-changed, but they’re performed with verve by Ewan Goddard, Georgia Anderson, and Jessica Daugirda, as Daddy, Mummy, and Baby Bear respectively.  There is also a star turn from Alexia McIntosh as Candy Floss, whose rich vocal stylings lift the musical numbers into something special.

The story, such as it is, is broken-up by circus acts.  Pierre Marchand amazes with his diabolo; The Gemini Sisters on their tightrope; and Phil Hitchcock as the Magical Mysterioso — all are gobsmackingly good, although in a piece that touches on cruelty to animals, I’m dismayed to see live birds used as props.

On the whole, the show provides welcome respite from the grimness of life in Britain at the moment.  There is much to marvel at and more to laugh at.  It’s a crowd-pleasing piece of fun brimming with sauciness and silliness.  You don’t need ten good reasons to see it—Jason Donovan is reason enough for me, and yes, it’s great to have Matt Slack back and at the top of his game.

★★★★

Matt Slack and Jason Donovan (Photo; Birmingham Hippodrome)

Seasoned Performers

JERSEY BOYS

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 9th December, 2021

There are lots of biographical shows charting the rise of music stars, rags-to-riches tales of incredible talents and the subsequent ravages of fame.  What sets Jersey Boys a cut above is the handling of the material.  Telling the story of Frankie Valli and the group that was to become The Four Seasons, the show is divided into four acts, each narrated by a member of the group.  The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice doesn’t gloss over the murkier aspects of the boys’ lives—the criminal activity, the womanising, the links to organised crime—nor does it shy away from gritty language.  Tough guys talking tough.  The group could just as easily be called The Four-Letter Words.

We begin in Spring, narrated by Dalton Wood as Tommy DeVito, the character who brings the group together (and will ultimately pull them apart).  Wood is great in the part, with a likeable quality that offsets Tommy’s questionable behaviour.  We meet young Frankie Valli, an innocent in a den of thieves, played by the exceptional Michael Pickering, who really hits the high notes.  My Eyes Adored You is just lovely.

Summer shows the band achieving chart success.  The guys recreate the distinctive sounds and the hits keep coming.  Sherry Baby, Big Girls Don’t Cry…and we’re reminded of just how great these songs are, and how they have become part of the fabric of popular culture.  This act is narrated by Blair Gibson as songwriter Bob Gaudio, an innocent misfit among the hard-nosed boys from Jersey, whose presence gives rise to friction.  Gaudio’s talent is undeniable and Gibson gets his social awkwardness across as well as his genius.

Unfortunately, we return after the interval to hear that Michael Pickering is unable to continue; the role of Frankie will be played by Luke Suri, with whom Pickering shares the part.  And while it’s a shame not to get to see Pickering’s Frankie mature and complete his arc (Get well soon, Mike!) it means we get to see both actors’ versions.  Curiously, it works.  Like in The Crown when they swap actors to play the Queen getting older! 

Autumn shows Frankie as older and more careworn.  Played by someone else, it’s more striking how the music business has changed him!!  This act is narrated by Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths), deep-voiced and laconic with a fixation on hotel towels—There is a rich vein of humour amid the drama and Griffiths is the funniest.  The cracks are starting to appear, with Tommy’s exorbitant debts putting everyone in jeopardy.

Finally, Winter, narrated by Frankie, depicting Valli’s greatest personal tragedy.  The hits never stop coming.  Can’t Take My Eyes Off You brings the house down.  Luke Suri is phenomenal.

At the very end, the original group members reunite to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a kind of rebirth to follow Winter.  And of course, we’re all up on our feet and loving it.

An uplifting show with a dark underbelly, this is a proper grown-up musical, intelligently structured, superbly written, and executed to perfection by a top-notch cast. 

☆☆☆☆☆

Blair Gibson, Dalton Wood, Michael Pickering, and Lewis Griffiths (Photo: Birgit & Ralf Brinkoff)

Prance Charming

CINDERELLA

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.

☆☆☆☆

AJ Pritchard as Prince Charming, with Curtis Pritchard as Dandini (Photo: Tim Thursfield)

Wise Guys

THE PLAY WHAT I WROTE

The REP, Birmingham, Monday 6th December, 2021

In years gone by, the Morecambe & Wise special was a staple and indeed highlight of Christmas telly, replete with sketches, songs, dressing-up, attempts at high drama, and surprise celebrity guests.  Therefore, the 20th anniversary production of this play is an excellent choice for the Rep’s seasonal show this year.

All the elements you expect are in play.  Our hosts are a double act, with one taller than the other, but Dennis Herdman and Thom Tuck aren’t impersonating Morecambe & Wise, although they inhabit a very Morecambe & Wise world.  Herdman is loose and lanky, born for physical comedy, while Tuck’s pompous outbursts make him an ideal straight man—well, they’re both really funny in their own right.  They are supported by a hardworking Mitesh Soni, as Arthur (yes, he of the harmonica) who plays most of the other parts, including a hilarious turn as Scarlett Johannsen.   So, it’s more of a triple than a double act.  The first half is full of quickfire sketches, silliness and tearing around.  There is some excuse of a plot, with Tuck refusing to do a Morecambe & Wise show, preferring instead to stage a play what he wrote.  Of course, by the interval, he capitulates, and the second half is pure M&W.

The show is famous for having a secret surprise celebrity guest every night.  I remember yonks ago being tickled to see Dennis Waterman join in the fun, but tonight we are treated to none other than the God of Mischief himself, Tom Hiddleston!  It’s a genuine thrill to see him walk on, in his French aristocrat costume ready for the high drama, and to take Herdman’s Eric-like abuse on the chin.  Hiddleston goes on to further prove what a good sport he is, throwing himself whole-heartedly into Tuck’s Scarlet Pimpernel play, bringing gravitas to the execrable dialogue and joining in the singing and dancing and dressing-up with gusto.  Hiddleston brings pure delight to the proceedings, playing it exactly right, and I think just about everyone in the auditorium fell in love with him.  I know I did.

Director Sean Foley is clearly an aficionado of the source material, putting the cast through all the comic business with an expert eye for timing and silliness.  Nothing feels strained or overwrought, even though the performances are big and daft.  The evening is tinged with nostalgia as we are reminded about the genius of the great pair, and of course it’s all rounded off with a rendition of Bring Me Sunshine and the signature skipping off into the wings.

A proper laugh-out-loud evening of unadulterated joy.

Exhilarating and not ‘ruggish’ at all.

☆☆☆☆☆

Dennis Herdman, Tom Hiddleston, and Thom Tuck (Photo: Geraint Lewis)

Horribly Hysterical

HORRIBLE HISTORIES: BARMY BRITAIN

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Wednesday 1st December, 2021

Terry Deary’s bestselling books have spawned a hit television series, a film or two, and this, the latest in a succession of stage shows based on his work.

A cast of two, namely Jack Ballard and Morgan Philpott, take us on a whistle-stop tour of two thousand years of British history, from the Roman invasion to the Victorian age.  On-stage costumes enable very quick changes, so the pair can play all the parts without stopping the flow of the action.

Ballard and Philpott work very well together, and they work very hard to keep energy levels high and the audience engaged.  There are songs to singalong with, complete with simple actions, but above all there is plenty to laugh at.  The action is augmented by a video backdrop, which becomes 3-D in the second act (glasses are provided) and the dialogue is punctuated throughout by comical sound effects (courtesy of Nick Sagar’s sound design) but it’s the efforts of the seemingly tireless actors that have the most impact.

Highlights include Richard the Lionheart, with an hilarious running joke about roaring after his name is spoken, a scene about the Black Death (which has Pythonesque overtones) and in particular, an extended sequence about Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn.  There are strokes of genius: Elizabeth the First in an episode of Undercover Boss, Guy Fawkes on a Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Pastiche; and the most horrible story, that of body-snatchers Burke and Hare.  This sequence is presented in the most stylised way, so we get the horrible history without the graphic violence. The Postman Pat theme song will never be the same.  Finally, a rap duet between Queen Victoria and Prince Albert is delightfully irreverent.

The script is packed with information, but the delivery is so entertaining, you’re learning as a side effect.  Neal Foster’s direction keeps the actors busy with comic business, and there are at least as many laugh-out-loud moments as a pantomime.  So, if you’re looking for an alternative Christmas entertainment for the family, you won’t go horribly wrong with this little cracker.

★★★★


Beautifully Beastly

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 26th November 2021

Forget the Coca-Cola trucks!  You know when Christmas is definitely coming when the Belgrade opens its pantomime.

Back again for the umpteenth year are writer-director-dame Iain Lauchlan and his partner in crime, Craig Hollingsworth.  Separately and as a double act, these two embody the spirit of panto in Coventry, and it’s an absolute treat to see them back live on stage.

Appearing as Dame Dolly Mixture, Lauchlan is tirelessly funny, sporting a range of outfits based on sweets and chocolates, each one a delightful confection.  Lauchlan’s dame always has a twinkle in her eye and something saucy to say.  Paired with Hollingsworth’s Silly Billy, this is a dream team, bringing all the well-worn, well-loved and well funny panto elements to the stage, including a mandatory slosh scene involving mops, and the traditional word play, audience engagement…Lauclan’s script fizzles with jokes old and new.  Clearly, Hollingsworth is in his element, getting annoyed with the audience and complaining about being made to look silly.  A fast-paced song about alternative career paths for the cast is an hilarious highlight.

Another joy to watch is Peter Watts as bombastic narcissist Maurice, in a larger-than-life performance that comes close to stealing the show.  He is teamed with sidekick Grub, played by the excellent Miriam Grace Edwards—it’s great to see her return to the Belgrade stage.

Katy Anna Southgate’s Enchantress is a striking figure in a beautiful purple gown; it’s a pity we don’t get to hear her sing until the finale.

The panto fun is interspersed with the darker plot line of the fairy tale.  It begins with a Prince (Samuel Lake) being beastly to a peasant (Louie Wood).  As punishment for his lack of compassion, the Enchantress turns the Prince into a hideous beast for five hundred years.  The Beast is played with gusto by Sion Lloyd, whose scary speaking voice is offset by his beautiful, powerful singing.  Ruby Eva’s Beauty is as pretty and sweet as you’d expect, while David Gilbrook as her bewildered father Harold dodders around endearingly.  But, let’s face it, you don’t go to the panto for the plot!  The tonal gear change between anarchic silliness and emotional drama is sometimes too sharp.  It’s almost as though we’re switching between two different shows. 

Somehow, Lauchlan manages to marry all the elements to bring the story to its happy ending, complete with a rousing rendition of S Club 7’s Reach For The Stars, which you’ll be singing all the way home.

On the whole, it’s a joyous experience and production values are high, courtesy of the Belgrade’s in-house workshop, from the glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons to the lavish costumes and fairytale scenery.

A feast of festive family fun.

☆☆☆☆

Caning it: Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth (Photo: Nicola Young)

Slay Belles

DEATH DROP

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 23rd November, 2021

This raucous whodunit bears the hallmarks of a classic country house murder mystery.  It’s 1991, and a group of strangers assembles in the remote Shantay Manor on a stormy night.  The bodies start piling up, the fingers get pointing and accusations fly… But it’s almost as though the plot is unimportant in Holly Stars’s anarchic script.  Part-parody, part showcase, the show provides opportunities for its cast of drag queens and kings to shine. 

Lady of the house, Rosebud von Fistenburg (Vinegar Strokes) opens the show with a Bassey-esque number, before her guests start to arrive.  Vinegar Strokes impresses throughout, never falling short of absolutely hilarious, in a high camp portrayal of the upper-class hostess.  The performance is the backbone of the show, setting the tone (albeit a low one!).

Drag Race legend, Willam dazzles as pretty pop starlet ‘Shazza’, knowing when to turn up the melodrama and when to throw lines away for maximum comic impact. Willam has star quality oozing out of him—I think that’s what it is, anyway. Ra’Jah O’Hara combines stunning beauty with comedic skills in a hugely enjoyable turn as weather girl, Summer Rains.  Karen From Finance brings an antipodean twang to proceedings, power-dressed to the nines as gutter journalist Morgan Pierce, of The World of the News—subtlety is not on the menu tonight.

The Queens are more than ably supported by Georgia Frost as sexist film-maker, Phil Maker, and by Richard Energy, as Tory MP Rich Whiteman.  Male stereotypes are sent up mercilessly—and quite right, too!

Holly Stars herself appears as the Bottomley Triplets, who are catering the do, in a sublime display of camp comedy.  All the cast are served well by Stars’s script, and she is not shy of writing some juicy parts for herself.  One scene in particular has dialogue consisting almost entirely of tongue-twisters!  The rest is just daft, laced with pantomime fun and nostalgia for crispy pancakes and arctic rolls.

Director Jesse Jones fills every moment with comic business, heightened reactions, stylised movement and silliness.  The result is once you start laughing out loud, you don’t stop.  This is far and away the funniest show I have seen in a long time.

Camp, salacious, silly, and ludicrous, Death Drop is a real joy-bringer, proving what I’ve always suspected to be true: drag artists really do make the world a better place.

★★★★★

Pointing fingers at Vinegar Strokes are Willam, Holly Stars and Karen From Finance (Photo: Matt Crockett)