Category Archives: pantomime

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)

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)

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)

Stream Scream

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Online

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1st-31st December 2020

The annual treat of the Belgrade pantomime is not cancelled, thank goodness, but is available to stream from the theatre’s website into the comfort (or otherwise) of your own home.  Panto without audience participation might seem like the odds are stacked against it, but such is the effectiveness of this specially filmed production, you barely miss the auditorium.

The mighty Iain Lauchlan has been the engine, the heart and the soul of the Belgrade’s panto for over a quarter of a century now, and the film begins with him strolling onto a bare stage and gazing out at the empty stalls.  Voices and laughter from previous productions can be heard.  It’s quite a downbeat start, reflecting the sadness the entire industry must be feeling this year, but the mood instantly picks up when he sits on the edge of the stage alongside his longtime comedy partner, Craig Hollingsworth, who has an idea of how the pantomime can still go ahead this year: stream it online.  At once, you can see the chemistry between these two; their partnership is the biggest draw for me to keep going to Coventry every year.  Their effortless banter and crosstalk is second-to-none.

And so the panto proper begins, with Lauchlan as the Fairy narrator, able to use her wand for digital effects you can’t get in the theatre.   The set and costumes are very much what you’d expect to find on stage but crucially the performance style has been altered to suit the screen.  The acting is still non-naturalistic, but its heightened just enough to maximise the comedy without going over the top.  Addressing the audience is replaced by direct-to-camera and this works brilliantly for Dame Trott’s monologues (Iain Lauchlan is the consummate dame) and also for quick asides and punchlines.  Craig Hollingsworth, usually called upon to be a master of crowd control, here demonstrates another impressive set of skills, those of acting for and to the lens.  I did not think these two could get any higher in my estimation, but they’ve done exactly that.

With Lauchlan and Hollingsworth playing most of the parts (due to the necessity of having limited numbers permitted in rehearsals) this is a real showcase for their talents.  They are joined by perky principal boy, Morna Macpherson as Jack Trott, with Arina Li as the feisty Princess.  Trish Adudu is somewhat underused as the Giant’s wife, appearing in a Zoom call with Hollingsworth’s Fleshcreep (who reminds me of Dave Hill from Slade!)   The troupe of young dancers is led by the dashing Ayden Morgan, adding to the vibrancy of this colourful and inventive production.

Lauchlan’s script is bang up-to-date, riddled with topical references, as befits any panto worth its salt.  He has always been an innovative panto creator and this year, more than ever, his ability to marry traditional tropes with technical advancements is crucial.  Everything is so well thought out.  Even Daisy the cow’s costume has been amended to include social distancing for her front and back legs!  There is plenty of slapstick and silliness, along with saucier jokes for the adults, and it’s all splendidly directed (by Paul Gibson) to suit the medium.

This is by no means a question of performing a panto and standing a camera in front of it.  This is a true marriage of form and content, of timeless tradition and contemporary communications.

It’s available to stream for the whole month of December from belgrade.co.uk so people far beyond the bounds of Coventry can get to see it, and it’s excellent value and an absolute scream.  Oh yes it is.

*****

Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth face off with a bake-off (Photo: Chloe Ely)


Slick and Slack

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Monday 23rd December 2019

 

If you like your pantomimes to come with lashings of glitz, glamour and spectacle, you come to the Hippodrome’s annual extravaganza – and you won’t be disappointed.   This production, originally staged at the London Palladium last Christmas, stints on nothing as it aims to impress.  The key ingredient for a pantomime to work is its cast and here too, we are not sold short.

The show opens with the Magnificent Seven, the dwarfs, who provide the customary exposition in rhyming couplets.  They handle the verse well and have a big impact – it’s a shame then that they disappear from proceedings for quite a while.  And I feel they could be featured more, in comedy routines – they don’t appear to be lacking in talent.

Joe McElderry is the Spirit of the Mirror, a kind of good fairy; he reminds us how great an entertainer he is and, wisely, director Michael Harrison makes good use of him for musical numbers.  McElderry is paired with handsome Prince Harry of Harborne, rising star Jac Yarrow – their voices fit well together, Yarrow’s musical theatre tones blending with McElderry’s pop star vocals.  They are a duo to be reckoned with.  Yarrow is suitably dashing in princely garb but, like many of the characters, has to play the straight man to comic turn ‘Muddles’ a kind of Buttons character, played by the Hippodrome’s resident panto star, Matt Slack.

Slack, returning for his 120th year – oh, wait, am I confusing it with the theatre’s birthday celebrations? –  has an appreciative fan base in Birmingham, and he has plenty of opportunity to showcase his skills: his impressions, his physicality, his daftness, all of which have an underlying wit and intelligence.  Slack is great at what he does, (although I can find him a little overbearing at times), and his shtick invariably goes down well.  There is nothing slack about his professionalism.

Slack’s brilliance comes at a price.  Consummate pantomime dame Andrew Ryan is underused.  Rather than a comic turn in her own right, his Nanny Annie is a sidekick for Muddles’s shenanigans.  Similarly, delightfully deadpan Doreen Tipton is restricted to being part of the troupe and is not given her moment to shine with a song or a monologue or recitation.

Faye Brooks exudes sweetness as the titular princess.  She sings sweetly too – there is a plot twist that works brilliantly, giving her character more oomph.

But for me the undisputed star of the show is the mighty Lesley Joseph as the wicked Queen Dragonella.  A seasoned pro, Joseph pitches the role perfectly, so we find her villainy delectable and her diva-esque ravings high camp.  She is not above making a laughing-stock of herself and she looks fabulous.  The best panto villain I’ve seen this year.

Everything about the show says quality.  The dancers, the costumes, the beautiful set… Britain’s Got Talent’s urban dance act, Flawless crop up as the palace guards, bringing slick moves and also a sense of humour.  Of course, Matt Slack gets in on the act – and it’s one of the show’s funniest and most impressive moments.

All in all, this slick production is as entertaining as you could wish.  All the right ingredients are there – it’s just that some of them are overpowered by the flavour of others.

8-Snow White 11

Yass, Queen! Lesley Joseph rules as Queen Dragonella (Photo: Paul Coltas)

 


Small but perfectly formed

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 14th December, 2019

 

Stratford’s intimate Attic theatre may not seem a suitable venue for pantomime but clearly Tread The Boards Theatre Company, returning for their tenth Christmas show, know how to make it work.  What we lose in scale and spectacle is more than compensated for by closeness and directness.  Director Jennifer Rigby delivers all the crucial elements for a traditional show; the reach-out-and-touch properties of the space add a personal touch.  We are all in it, inescapably, and the proximity of the actors adds to the fun and to our admiration of their talents.

John-Robert Partridge’s script gives the cast of seven plenty to do.  Annaliese Morgan makes an appealing and fun Fairy Beansprout, brandishing a leek for some reason instead of a wand.  Contrasting perfectly with her sweetness, is the sneering Danny Teitge as the Giant’s menacing henchman, Fleshcreep, in a detailed, hilarious performance that accentuates the comedy of the role.  Jack Scott-Walker is suitably heroic as Jack, and his duet with the Princess (Nicolette Morgan) demonstrates his fine singing voice.  The Princess is spirited and fun-loving, definitely not one of those royals who keeps herself aloof.

fleshcreep

A Fleshcreep to make your skin crawl: Danny Teitge (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

Marc Alden-Taylor quickly establishes himself as a favourite, swiftly befriending the audience and enlisting us into his ‘gang’ in a skilful portrayal of Simple Simon.  The comic timing is spot on and his rapport with the audience, especially the children, is hugely enjoyable.  There is energetic support from Linden Iliffe as a perky Lord Chamberlain, but the icing on this Christmas cake comes in the form of Pete Meredith’s superlative Dame Trot.  Naughty but never vulgar, Meredith is a hoot with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of garish gowns and colourful wigs that complement his characterisation perfectly.

There are amusing scenes with Daisy the Cow (appearing as herself) and the Giant is heard but never seen – in fact it is here, that there’s a slight issue: the sound mix makes the Giant a bit hard to understand when he has prolonged dialogue, but the actions and reactions of the cast mean that we still get the gist of what he’s booming on about.

There are plenty of jokes and lots of well-worn routines: a bit of It’s-Behind-You with a prowling ghost, some silliness in a schoolroom scene, a breakneck rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas, a hilarious, if extraneous, balloon ballet that elicits belly laughs… and there is also excitement with an impressive bout of swordfighting between Jack and Fleshcreep, all the more thrilling at such close quarters.  Running business with a bag of sweets keeps us actively engaged, but more could be made of the water pistols given to young audience members to ward characters off particular areas of the stage.

A highlight for me is a brand-new original song, composed by the excellent musical director Elliott Wallis and sung by Danny Teitge (with support from Daisy the Cow).  Teitge’s delivery and Wallis’s skill make the number sound as if it has been lifted from a Broadway show.  It fits perfectly the character and the context and is performed exquisitely.

In fact, the cast sells all the musical numbers well, with lively pop choreography by Catherine Prout, and when they all sing together it’s fantastic.  The energy never flags in this fine, fun production that proves you don’t need grand spectacle and expensive effects to enchant and entertain.

jack and daisy

Daisy the Cow (herself) and Jack (Jack Scott-Walker) in a mooving scene (Photo: Andy Maguire Photography)

 

 

 


A Grand night out

DICK WHITTINGTON

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 10th December, 2019

 

It’s the 125th birthday of this beautiful theatre and what better way to celebrate than to attend the annual pantomime?  Written and directed by Ian Adams, this is an old-school show with plenty of spectacle, traditional fare and topical gags, something to keep everyone entertained.

Coronation Street’s Ryan Thomas is the eponymous Dick, and he does a good job as the working-class hero and all-round good guy.  He could do with some more audience interaction – this is left largely to the comic characters, such as Aaron James as Idle Jack (a brilliant impressionist and affable fellow) and Ian Adams’s Sarah the Cook, a saucy music-hall character and a double-entendre machine.  Adams gives a masterclass in pantomime damery.

Jeffery Holland, himself one of the best dames in the business, has the straighter role of Alderman Fitzwarren.  We are in safe hands here.  Holland, at the forefront of time-honoured routines like the mop drill, makes the material work, whether you’ve seen it a hundred times or are coming to it for the first time, as many of the younger members of the audience are.

Su Pollard tries her best as the villainous Queen Rat, stalking around like someone from an office Halloween party.  She is great at her musical numbers but there is a conflict between her persona and her role, as if she wants us to like her and not like to hate her.  I would have cast her as a novice Fairy Bow Bells, seeking to earn her wings (aka yellow coat).

WHITTINGTON 71 TT 06.JPG

Su Pollard as Queen Rat

Not that there is any problem with the Fairy Bow Bells we get.  Julie Paton exudes a kind of authoritative benevolence; there is something of Julie Andrews about her – again, we are in very safe hands.  Paton also choreographs and there is a dazzling routine where everyone is seated, a kind of convoluted hand jive that is as charming as it is complex.

Katie Marie-Carter sings sweetly as love interest Alice Fitzwarren but the show is just about stolen by Jordan Ginger as rather posh talking cat Tommy.

The script is peppered with quickfire hit-or-miss gags so you hardly stop laughing.  We don’t get the underwater scene we might expect in this panto and, curiously, with Sarah the Cook on board we don’t get a slapstick cooking scene.  We do get a scary surprise to close the first act and – because it’s gala night tonight, there is an extra-special guest appearance from veteran comic Jimmy Tarbuck himself!  Tarbuck comes on dressed as a sultan, does a few gags and reminiscences a bit, urging us to cherish this grand and beautiful venue.

It occurs to me that this may be the only pantomime based on an historical figure – unless you write in and tell me there was indeed a Mother Goose – but what matters here is the story still works as a piece of family entertainment, and its presented here by highly skilled professionals and with oodles of cheekiness and charm.

WHITTINGTON 99 TT 06.JPG

Aaron James, Ian Adams and Jeffery Holland

 


The Cat’s Pyjamas

PUSS IN BOOTS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 29th November, 2019

 

This is the first pantomime of the season for me and it’s a cracker.  Belgrade stalwarts Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth return for the umpteenth year on the trot for the rarely staged story of a crafty cat who helps his master to social climb his way to the palace, defeating a terrible ogre along the way.  The pair work superbly as a double act, with Lauchlan as the dame, Matilda Pudding, and Hollingsworth as her son, Simon.   They are also superb on their own, with Hollingsworth in particular working the audience.  His persona is cheeky and easily annoyed; the comic timing is impeccable.  Lauchlan gives a masterclass in panto-damery, with a succession of ridiculous outfits, charming humour and an irrepressible sense of fun.  Lauchlan also writes and directs, and is clearly some kind of genius.

Iain Lauchlan (Matilda Pudding) and Craig Hollingsworth (Simon Pudding) - credit Robert Day

The Puddings: Matilda (Iain Lauchlan) and Simon (Craig Hollingsworth) Photo: Robert Day

The rest of the cast, for the most part, rise to the standard of the star pair, given the stock limitations of their roles.  Aimee Bevan warms into her duties as our narrator Fairy Flutterby; David Gilbrook is suitably doddery as good King Colin; and Miriam Grace Edwards makes a gutsy Princess Sophia.  As the villain, evil jester Victor Grabitt, Peter Watts is enormous fun, sinister, snide and camp in the melodramatic sense, he is a joy to watch.

The chorus is fleshed out with a troupe of local children, who tackle Jenny Phillips’s choreography with panache.  Among the grown-up dancers, Dylan Jones distinguishes himself with some spectacular urban moves, as well as an engaging sense of humour.  Daniel Teague appears as the Ogre, in a delightfully scary moment – this show has plenty to engage the children and get them shouting and pointing at the stage.

In the title role, Joanna Thorne is dashingly heroic with a lively touch of comedy.  The role is a blend of principal boy and a skin part, but it also lets girls in the audience that females can be proactive.  Thorne has a strong singing voice – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more of it.

Lauchlan’s script successfully combines traditional routines with bang up-to-date new elements: we are invited to submit ogre-faced selfies to an Instagram account during the interval; Simon Pudding first appears via face-time… Lauchlan thereby upholds the audience expectations of the form, while keeping the form fresh and current, and of course there is plenty of saucy humour to keep the adults laughing.

Non-stop fun from start to finish, this is a refreshing change from the ‘big’ pantos that always do the rounds (the Aladdins, the Cinderellas, the Dicks) and a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit.  As ever, it’s great to see such a diverse audience at the Belgrade, demonstrating that pantomime truly is for everyone and that theatre can bring us together.

Joanna Thorne (Puss in Boots) and Peter Watts (Victor Grabbit) 2 - credit Robert Day

Joanna Thorne as Puss in Boots and Peter Watts as Grabitt (Photo: Robert Day)

 

 

 


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

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