Category Archives: pantomime

The Princess and the Proon

SNOW WHITE

Stratford Play House, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 21st December, 2018

 

For their first pantomime since taking over the venue, Proon Productions present the fairy-tale favourite, combining a small cast of professionals with a cast of small amateurs: children from the Drama Club, taking on the roles of Snow White’s seven companions.

Steve Kray’s script reunites adult members of the audience with some very old, groan-worthy jokes.   Of course, for children, there are no old jokes; the delivery here is well-paced and the performance style is definitely old-school to match.  Small-scale this may be, but the energy of the performers keeps the panto spirit alive.

In the title role, Phoebe Cresswell is a sweet princess, high-pitched like Betty Boop or Disney’s version; her singing voice is less shrill, it’s very pleasant indeed.  As Snow White’s love interest, Prince Boris, the thigh-slapping Ellen Hastings certainly looks the part; she could do with more conviction in her princely swagger.  Joanna Gay’s cackling evil Queen is a major draw, stalking around melodramatically.  She is a fine singer too, although in some of the solo numbers, cast members can look a bit stranded on stage, with no backing dancers or special lighting to heighten the moment.  In perfect contrast with Gay’s histrionics, a pre-recorded Rebecca Hallworth appears as the even-tempered Magic Mirror, dispassionately doling out the truth.  There is even an appearance by company mascot, Mr Proon, himself.  Imagine Mr Blobby with class.

Steve Kray, not only writing and directing, appears as Silly Billy, whose downbeat Brummie intonations augment the comedic energy of the character.  Silly Billy is at his finest (daftest) working in tandem with Ellis Creez’s dame, ‘Nursie’ – a characterisation worthy of the admission fee alone!  Creez has immaculate comic timing and it’s as though he has travelled in time from a music hall.  He delivers quite lengthy patter with archness and charm and just the right amount of sauce.  There are times when his magnificent sculpted wigs cast his face in shadow; it’s a pity to lose those expressions!

The commitment from the youngsters is a delight to behold, each one of them doing their utmost to add to the fun.  They’re a strong team but I am particularly impressed by Alfie Lee as Watt and Sophia Lucas as Him.  Well-trained and enthusiastic, these dwarves could do a few comedy beards to help differentiate them.

There is much to enjoy here, it just needs a bit of tightening.  A more consistent use of musical cues, for example, like a few crashing chords to herald the entrance of the villain every time she comes on, would help sustain the atmosphere, rather than having the Queen arrive in cold silence.  And the baking scene makes absolutely no mess whatsoever – a missed opportunity for a bit of slapstick!

There is something for everyone, with the likeability of the performers and the corniness of the jokes carrying us through the familiar fairy-tale.  The show needs and deserves a large and responsive audience, that crucial pantomime ingredient that binds everything together.

Running until December 31st, with matinee and evening shows, Snow White is a refreshing alternative to CGI-laden blockbuster movies, tired Christmas telly, and violent videogames.  Book a family treat now on 01789 333990 or www.stratfordplay.co.uk

snow white proon

 

 

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What a Croc!

PETER PAN

Birmingham Hippodrome, Thursday 20th December, 2018

 

Birmingham’s Hippodrome theatre can be counted on to stage the biggest, brightest pantomime year after year and this year is no exception.  Peter Pan is a bit of a weird one, as pantos go, because we expect to see certain key plot points from the J M Barrie play along with traditional panto elements as befit the format.  There is no wedding celebration at the end, for example, because there is no couple of lovers; in fact, Peter and Wendy’s story ends with separation.  Bit of a downer, there, Mr Barrie.

Other than that, it is quite a good fit in this adaptation for the pantomime stage by Alan McHugh and director Michael Harrison.  Big, bold and extravagant, the Hippodrome panto is the jewel in the Qdos crown, but it doesn’t matter how much money you chuck at the stage, it doesn’t matter how big the Wow factor is, if the show doesn’t have any heart.

Rest assured, heart is not in short supply either, thanks to a superlative cast.

Back for his sixth year on the trot, funnyman Matt Slack almost dominates proceedings as Mr Smee.  With Slack, you know exactly what you’re getting, and you’re delighted to get it.  There is nothing slack about his comedic skills: a bit rude, a lot daft, and with exquisite timing.  His impressions are always impressive too.

Union J’s Jaymi Hensley is practically perfect as Peter, with his boyish good looks and angelic pop vocals.  I could listen to him all night.

jaymi

Pan-tastic: Jaymi Hensley

Cassie Compton makes an earnest Wendy, while Kellie Gnauck is an appealingly bratty Tinker Bell.  Meera Syal brings local colour to the show in her pantomime debut as the Magical Mermaid and is clearly enjoying herself immensely.  There are old-school variety acts courtesy of the remarkable Timbuktu Tumblers and a gravity-defying balancing act called the Drunken Pirates (Sascha Williams and his assistant Stephanie Nock).

The flying effects are as you’d expect but there are also some surprises.  Most impressive of all is the Crocodile, whose terrifying appearance brings the first act to a close.  Truly, the best I have seen.

The coup though is the casting of not-so little Jimmy Osmond in the role of Captain Hook.  Osmond is the embodiment of entertainment and one of those rare creatures, an American who gets pantomime.  He establishes an excellent rapport with Slack, the straight guy to the latter’s buffoonery, and he treats us with several songs from his brothers’ repertoire, for a rousing finale.

This spectacular affair is a lot of fun.  The comic song, If I Were Not in Neverland, brings the house down, and Slack’s handling of the four youngsters who come up on stage for the sing-along is always a highlight.

One thing I will say: the show could do with a wider range of costumes.  Captain Hook especially deserves an extensive wardrobe, and in the absence of a dame, the Magical Mermaid could do with some more outlandish outfits.

But never mind that.  This is a top-drawer production, an awfully big adventure that is hilarious and magical, demonstrating that what matters most of all is casting.  Get that right and everything else is a bonus.

jimmy osmond

Hooked on a feeling: Jimmy Osmond

 

 


Making Merry

ROBIN HOOD

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Friday 14th December, 2018

 

Panto’s cheekiest duo, Jonathan Wilkes and Christian Patterson, are back – of course, they’re back – with another hilarious madcap extravaganza.  The Robin Hood legend is merely a framework on which to hang the customary pantomime shenanigans, although there is some semblance of a plot with the archery contest for the golden arrow, and King Richard returning from the Crusades.

In the title role, Jonathan Wilkes with his schoolboy impertinence and his pleasant pop-star vocals is an irresistible lead.  The home crowd that turn out in their droves to support him know what to expect, and we lap it up.  Long-time confederate (ten years and counting) Christian Patterson starts off as a cheery, ruddy-cheeked Friar Tuck, getting up to monk-y business.  The funniest moments of the show are whenever these two are on together, and the script contrives to keep them on together for as much as possible.  Tuck, to distract the Sheriff, becomes a pantomime dame and opts to stay in drag for the rest of the show.  Tuck by name…

As the Sheriff of Stokingham, the mighty Kai Owen is enjoyably sneering, spouting insults at the audience, looking like a cross between Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III and Claudia Winkelman.  Finley Guy is an appealing, perky Maid Marian, who can give better than she gets in a sword fight with the baddie.  This is just one of the production’s progressive elements, showing that female characters can be pro-active too.

Another welcome step is the inclusion of an openly gay character in the handsome form of Delme Thomas’s Will Scarlett.  He could not be more camp, but the character is never ridiculed or belittled; he is accepted, included and valued, and that is very pleasing to see.  Thomas commits to his high-camp characterisation and can ad lib with the best of them and sing like a dream.

Peter Bonner’s Little John lives up to his name.  He’s a charming stage presence and a great sport.  There are plenty of jokes at the expense of his diminutive stature, good-natured ribbing this may be but perhaps we will see a move away from this kind of humour too…

Baby steps.

The good fairy role is played by Rebecca Lisewski as the Spirit of Sherwood, combining fairy-tale glamour with a down-to-earth manner.  Her singing voice is the best of the bunch and she gets to really let rip in the finale with a rousing rendition of This Is Me.

As ever, the choreography, by Nikki Wilkes and James Bennett, is superlative, performed by an attractive ensemble that contains some acrobatic men.  The crowd is augmented by kids from the Wilkes Academy of Performing Arts.   The songs are well-known and sing-along-able and some of the jokes are tell-along-able.  Inclusion really is the watchword here!

There’s an impressive 3D sequence (the graphics in these things have definitely improved) along with traditional moments (a song-sheet, kids on stage, a stalking ghost…)  The almost-obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas rapidly descends into chaos, and you might think the whole enterprise is just silly, knockabout fun, and indeed Wilkes and Patterson give the impression that it’s all slapdash.  Well, slick it certainly isn’t – on the surface, at any rate.  Patterson’s direction masks the professionalism beneath the giggles.  There is a gobsmacking Play-That-Goes-Wrong moment, which I won’t give away, but it makes you realise these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

The laughs keep coming in this warm-hearted, who-farted, romp.  It’s like catching up with old friends and having a cracker of a night out.  A feast of fun, I advise you to Tuck in.

merry men

Merry men: Delme Thomas, Christian Patterson, Jonathan Wilkes and Peter Bonner

 

 


Finger-Prickin’ Good

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 11th December, 2018

 

Second panto of the season for me and my second Sleeping Beauty.  This extravaganza in Wolverhampton’s beautiful Grand Theatre hits all the high notes, with their most consistently excellent pantomime production in years.

Debbie McGee kicks things off with a Grand entrance as the Lovely Fairy Crystal.  It’s not long before she’s demonstrating her hoofing skills.  Strictly between us, she’s still a fantastic mover, even if she is prone to a spot of corpsing in her dialogue scenes – actually, this adds to the fun.  As her evil counterpart, the wicked fairy Carabosse, Julie Paton is hugely enjoyable; it’s not until the second act that we get her finest moment, a lyrically-adapted rendition of  I Will Survive.  Paton also choreographs the show, the customary blend of fairy-tale costumes and contemporary dance.

Ian Adams returns to Wolverhampton on double duty, as director and as a deliciously camp dame, Queen Wilhelmina (Call me Willy!)  Adams is clearly in his element here, bringing drag queen elegance.  The innuendo levels sky-rocket whenever he is on.  Also back is Doreen Tipton, as hilariously dreary Nurse Doreen, bringing a very local flavour to proceedings and also some of the rudest remarks.

Bethan-Wyn Davies is an appealing Princess Beauty, looking like she’s dropped out of a Disney movie, and singing like a pop princess.  Her love interest is Prince Harry, played by the delightful Oliver Ormson, handsome, funny and with the voice of an angel, he is the perfect panto prince.

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Oliver Ormson and Bethan-Wyn Davies as Harry and Meghan – sorry, Beauty (Photo: Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

The big draw for me though is the casting of Sooty.  As himself.  There is so much love for the little golden bear with black ears, and I’m pleased to see it’s not just me.  The older members of the audience revel in the nostalgia while the younger ones are delighted by his mischievous antics perhaps for the first time.  Of course, you can’t have Sooty without Sweep, who treats us to a rendition of Nessun Dorma like no other.  It’s a surreal moment.  Part of you knows it’s a hand in a glove squeezing a squeaker, but another part of you overrules it and you find yourself urging him on.  Go on, Sweep, give it some welly!

Accompanying the puppets is Richard Cadell.  More than Sooty’s handler, he is a splendid comic performer in his own right and also a fine stage magician.  The show has some amazing set pieces, magic tricks on the small and the large scale.  Cadell is irrepressibly funny, a true showman.

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Richard Cadell as Muddles and Sooty as himself (Photo; Tim Thursfield, Express & Star)

With musical director Kelvin Towse in charge of a tight ensemble, a troupe of talented dancers (who are perhaps a little underused) and a smattering of ‘babes’ from the Classic Academy of Dance, this is a high-quality show that really does have something for everyone.  Production values are impressive (apart from a naff helicopter) and while the kids revel in the slapstick, the grown-ups are tickled by the risqué jokes.  There are traditional routines, spectacular effects, and above all a whole lot of fun.

Magic.


Woke!

SLEEPING BEAUTY

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 23rd November, 2018

 

No matter how beautiful you are, there’s no danger of dozing off during this year’s festive offering at the Belgrade.  As usual, it’s written and directed by the mighty Iain Lauchlan, who also appears as amiable dame, Nanny Fanny McWheeze, this is a cavalcade of fun, showing off Lauchlan’s mastery of the form, his skills as a performer, and crucially, his innovations.  For example, the traditional slosh scene (icing a cake) is set-up brilliantly, involving an Alexa-type device (a Scottish version named Morag!) who reels off the instructions of how to play the sport curling, which the cast mistake for cake-decorating tips.  Add to the mix, a hapless member of the audience who is game for a laugh, and this extended slapstick scene builds superbly.  Genius!

Also returning is Lauchlan’s regular stage partner, the hilarious Craig Hollingsworth.  This year he’s Muddles the Jester, and he’s as irritable as Nanny Fanny is amiable.  Hollingsworth’s short temper and long-suffering stance are the perfect foil for Lauchlan’s kindnesses, and also for the more saccharine elements of the story.  If this partnership ever splits, the Belgrade will probably crumble.

In the title role, Melissa Brown-Taylor is a plucky Princess Belle, while Joanna Thorne’s Prince Valiant is leggy and heroic as a principal boy should be; (it seems contemporary theatre is catching up with the gender-swapping that has been a staple of pantomime all along!).  Declan Wilson is a cuddly King Hugo, with Vicky Field making an impression as his ill-tempered, ill-fated Queen.  Field soon reappears as Grunge, sidekick to the evil fairy in an enjoyable portrayal.  Anna Mitcham’s good fairy Azurial is, in her own words, ‘perky’, assisted by a troupe of youngsters as her fairy assistants.  But it is Laura Judge’s villainous Carabosse who almost steals the show.  Bitterly melodramatic, Judge’s high-camp performance is a treat.

There is spectacle, of course: watch out for a dragon (it’d be hard to miss!) and a lively ensemble in beautiful story-book costumes by Terry Parsons.  Jenny Phillips’s choreography gets its big moment in the Act Two opener.  The original songs (by Lauchlan, Liz Kitchen and Steve Etherington) aren’t bad, each one serving its purpose and played by a tight combo under the able baton of Dan Griffin.  There are well-worn routines given a new spin, and up-to-date topical references.

The overall feel is trad meets new, and like the Prince and Princess, it’s a perfect match.

Iain Lauchlan & Craig Hollingsworth as Nanny McWheeze & Muddles - photo credit Robert Day

Something’s come between us! Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth perform a spot of high culture (Photo: Robert Day)


Strictly the Best

CINDERELLA

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 3rd January, 2018

 

It’s my final panto of the season and I’ve saved the biggest until last.  The Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza can be relied on to provide glitz and spectacle, almost to excess – Can you have too many sequins?  I think not.

In the title role, Suzanne Shaw is a spirited Cinderella, warm and friendly and assured – Alan McHugh’s script doesn’t give Cinders chance to demonstrate her goodness (and therefore worthiness for the Prince) – there is no gathering firewood for an old woman scene, for example; we have to take her goodness as hearsay…

Local girl and soul diva Beverley Knight is absolutely stunning as the Fairy Godmother – vocally, a dream, but she also enters into the panto spirit, playing on her Wolverhampton accent to comic effect.  A duet with one Grumbleweed (hilariously sabotaged by the other one) is a highlight of the evening.  Yes, the Grumbleweeds are back, having undergone something of a Sugababes change in line-up.  They bring old-school, variety club comedy to their roles as the Broker’s Men – their routine involving a treacherous padded stool remains funny no matter how many times you see it.

Hollyoaks heartthrob Danny Mac is perfectly cast as Prince Charming and, of course, there is plenty of opportunity to show off his Strictly skills.  Watching on the telly is one thing, but nothing beats the impact of seeing such dancing and showmanship demonstrated live.  Almost impossibly handsome, Mac could make a living as a Disney prince.  He is supported by Gary Watson’s camp and likeable Dandini, but Mac’s highlight is a dance-off with the Hippodrome’s resident funny man, Matt Slack, back for his umpteenth year in a row.

Slack is in his element as Buttons.  Hardly what you might call a subtle performer, he manages to wring a little pathos into Buttons’s unrequited love for Cinders, and his routine with children volunteers from the audience shows off his skills and tests his professionalism.  The show affords him chance to rattle off innuendo (there’s a snack-related scene and one in which he lip-synchs to a host of song clips) and we know we’re in safe hands for a good laugh.  There is one moment, however, when the wheels almost come off.  It is usually the prerogative of the villain to insult the audience – otherwise, any interplay with individuals is usually good-natured and cheeky.  Here though, Slack turns a video camera on the crowd, projecting faces onto a screen for all to see.  It’s excruciatingly uncomfortable and unnecessary, and more to do with Theatre of Cruelty than pantomime.  That part aside, this is a marvellously entertaining production.

Here the Ugly Sisters are vicious drag queens: Voluptua (a deadpan Ceri Dupree) and Verucca (a gurning David Dale) swan around in ridiculously OTT outfits, spouting barbed remarks, many of them off-colour.  It’s wonderful stuff but their nastiness is in keeping with the needs of the plot: their bullying of Cinderella loses none of its cruelty, much as we enjoy their bitchiness.

The transformation scene that closes the first act is splendid on the grand scale but it is the dancing and the old-fashioned humour that really make this show sparkle, with Beverley Knight and Danny Mac bringing the star quality to a solid and skillful cast.

Cinderella

Having a ball: Suzanne Shaw and Danny Mac

 


Rubbing Us the Right Way

ALADDIN

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Wednesday 27th December, 2017

 

Aladdin is up there with Cinderella as one of the stronger pantomime plots, but it has the advantage of a strong villain role in the evil magician, Abanazar – played this time by Kai Owen.  Owen is a formidable presence, menacing but not really threatening, and it falls to him and his machinations to keep the story going – otherwise it’s a lot of singing, dancing and messing around.

Back yet again is the dream duo of local star Jonathan Wilkes and everyone’s favourite dame, Christian Patterson, in the roles of Aladdin and his mother Widow Twankee respectively.  The pair also co-direct and we are in safe hands: they know what they are doing to optimise the fun.  In fact, it’s the interval before I notice the omission of Wishee Washee, but then I realise when your leading man is so funny, the show doesn’t need another comic presence.  Wilkes and Patterson are perfect foils for each other, but they are also strong in their own right.  The ageless Wilkes, with his cheeky smile, juvenile humour and pop star vocals is an irresistible, naughty boy persona.  Patterson is never short of a twinkle in his heavily made-up eyes and you get the feeling whenever he utters something naughty, there’s something even naughtier just bubbling under the surface.

They are aided and abetted by a vivacious Amanda Coutts as the Spirit of the Ring, and an avuncular Simon Nehan as the Emperor – who has an Elmer Fudd speech impediment but is never mocked for this.  Yazmin Wood’s Princess Jasmine sounds as good as she looks – she could do with better songs, to be honest.

The show is fast-moving and fresh (in more than one sense) and the fun is augmented by a couple of 3D sequences for which we all have to don the plastic glasses provided.  Spectacles, indeed!  The cast is supplemented by an ensemble of energetic, often acrobatic dancers, with Nikki Wilkes’s choreography adding to the exotic atmosphere, and there is a host of children from the Wilkes Academy for the big production numbers.  There are pyrotechnics, an elephant, and a magic carpet, all adding to the wow factor, but in the end, it’s the humour that keeps people flocking to the Regent year after year.  Traditional word-play routines, innuendo, and some apparently slapdash slapstick – there is a song about alternative jobs for the characters that requires split second timing to get it right (and wrong).  The humour is crude but never crass, and the jokes come thick and fast.  Two hours zoom by and it’s a real treat to be spend them in the company of these two pantomime favourites.  Wilkes and Patterson had better be back next year or the riots will be in the streets rather than on the stage.

aladdin

The Cheeky Boys: Christian Patterson and Jonathan Wilkes