Tag Archives: Alan McHugh

Peter Panto


Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 29th December, 2022

The title clearly states that this is not going to be the J.M. Barrie classic.  In fact, this is more of a sequel to the well-known story.  It begins with Tinkerbell, in the panto role of Good Fairy, welcoming Wendy Darling back to Neverland.  There is trouble afoot.  Something about supplies of pixie dust in short supply, blah blah.  Of course, the plot is not the main focus of pantomime.  The main focus of pantomime is fun, and this one has it in spades.

Appearing as Smee is local superstar and Regent favourite, Jonathan Wilkes who, let’s face it, is the one everyone comes to see.  Wilkes is the embodiment of pantomime: he sings, he dances, he can handle an audience and a comic monologue, and as director, he knows how every aspect of the show should work.  He has a cocky but not arrogant persona, a cheeky boyish charm that enables him to get away with the most bawdy lines.  Never mind Pan, he is the one who has never grown up and we all love him for it.

This year, Wilkes is hooked up with returning favourite Kai Owen as the nefarious pirate Captain, supposedly reformed having been poohed out by the crocodile.  The highlights of the show are their routines – some of them time-honoured and traditional, others fresh and new.  A scene where they drag up as mermaids is particularly hilarious, and as the run reaches its end, it’s obvious they are still very much enjoying themselves.

In the title role is a youthful and energetic Rory Sutherland, with all the right poses and heroic stances.  This Peter is an action hero as well as an adorable twink.  The plot means he is grounded until the pixie dust shortage is resolved, so when Sutherland finally takes to the air, we’re with him.

Amanda Coutts’s Tinkerbell is a gorblimey kind of fairy, bearing no ill-will or jealousy towards Hannah Everest’s confident and earnest Wendy Darling.  Both girls have powerful singing voices, and it’s great to see Wendy play an active role in the climactic defeat of Captain Hook.

The plot is new yet encompasses what we expect from both panto and Peter Pan.  The script by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Wilkes is riddled with jokes, some of them old, some of them new, and only a few of which never land.  There’s the almost obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas, which rapidly descends into chaos, the ancient ‘Who’s in the first house?” routine… Wilkes and Owen carry it all off with aplomb.  All right, so we don’t get out-and-out slapstick, but the element I miss the most is one of the most pivotal characters in the pantomime pantheon.  There is nothing like a dame.  For me, this is all that’s lacking from this ribald and rowdy, rollocking and riotous piece of theatre.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!

Hannah Everest, Jonathan Wilkes, Amanda Coutts, and Rory Sutherland (Photo: Claralou Photography)

Turn Again


Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 20th December, 2022

After all these years, Hippodrome pantomime favourite Matt Slack finally lands a title role.  At last he is able to make a Dick of himself.  If you’ve seen him before you know exactly what you’re going to get, and Slack delivers exactly what they pay him for.  No one does what Matt Slack does better than Matt Slack, but there is a strong whiff of we’ve seen it all before.  To paraphrase a line from the pantomime, Turn again, turn again, Matt Slack’s doing his turn again. 

You can’t help but admire his energy, his skill set (his impressions are off the scale!) and his wit – he is co-credited as scriptwriter along with veteran panto scribe, Alan McHugh.  The script is aimed well above the heads of the youngest members of the audience; it’s quite the rudest panto I’ve seen this year, which is fun for the grown-ups who have forked out for the tickets. 

As ever at the Hippodrome, it’s a massive spectacle.  An early appearance of the Rat King is breath-taking.   Unfortunately, its dialogue is largely drowned out by the atmospheric music that underscores the scene.  Playing the Rat King’s human emissary, the Rat Man is housewives’ favourite, Marti Pellow, who certainly looks the part.  Elegantly costumed, he struts around, performing tuneful songs of his own composition, but he is largely separate from the action.  It’s like he’s in a different show.  The rest are in a panto while he’s doing his musical theatre thing.

There’s a song about panto and how great it is.  We don’t need to know we’re watching a panto.  They don’t need to tell us they’re in a panto.  Again, the show veers toward musical theatre, which ain’t panto.  There’s no slosh scene, no ‘It’s behind you’ moment, and audience participation is kept to a bare minimum.

Conventionally a dancer is cast as the Cat.  Interestingly, we get local character Doreen Tipton instead.  Doreen has a marvellous deadpan woe-is-me delivery, and it’s great to see her branching away from her usual mockery of people on benefits.  As the Spirit of the Bells, TV’s Dr Ranj prances and sparkles around, very much being himself and proving himself a good sport.  Ironically, he serves as ‘straight man’ to Matt Slack’s extended pun-filled stories.

Andrew Ryan is Felicity Fitzwarren, a garishly glamorous dame, who definitely needs her own moment in the show out from under the shadow of Slack’s spotlight, while former pop star Suzanne Shaw provides love interest as Alice Fitzwarren. Shaw is strangely underused, with no solo number nor even a duet with Slack.

The cast is supported by a hardworking ensemble of ten, and a seven-piece band, led by Robert Willis. It’s a great looking, great-sounding production, beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell, and there are laughs aplenty throughout. What the show gains in scale and splendour, it loses in heart. Slick and spectacular, it’s enjoyable to be sure, but I feel it lacks some of the elements of the very art form it extols in song.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

What a Dick! Matt Slack reigning supreme (Photo: Paul Coltas)

What a Croc!


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.


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



Strictly the Best


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.


Having a ball: Suzanne Shaw and Danny Mac


Rubbing the Right Way


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 13th December, 2016


This year’s panto may be the Grand’s most lavish for years, containing moments of spectacle and glamour, but of course what matters most is the cast.  Qdos Entertainment has gathered a fine ensemble of familiar and not-so-familiar faces, all of whom go all out to deliver the goods.


Wow factor: Joe McElderry as Aladdin

In the title role is Joe McElderry, last seen on these boards as an excellent Joseph.  He sings like an angel from pop heaven, to be sure, but can he handle the comedy?  The answer is an unqualified yes.  McElderry is a natural for the panto style and makes an affable, adorable hero.  Lucy Kay is a beautiful Princess with a voice to match (her duets with McElderry are especially good); Adam C Booth’s Wishee Washee is a highly energised crowd pleaser and Ian Adams’s Widow Twankey is an old-school dame, played to perfection.  Lisa Riley, in great shape, is an amusing Slave of the Ring, bluff, Northern and friendly, but it is the Lazy Empress, played by Doreen who almost steals the show, giving Old Peking a decidedly and inescapably Black Country flavour.  Doreen also proves she is more than a one-trick pony (or should I say ‘oss’?) with a song-and-dance number that defies her supposedly lazy persona.  A real treat is Stefan Pejic’s delicious Abanazar.  Pejic plays the villain with such relish you can’t help liking him! Ben Faulks is fun as PC Ping Pong, although if you don’t know of his children’s TV gardening-based series, some of the references leave you a bit cold.  Neal Wright’s smart-talking Genie of the Lamp is a great surprise.

Michael Harrison and Alan McHugh’s script is faithful to the story – the bizarre mash-up of Arabian Nights and Chinese kitsch – while allowing for contemporary touches and moments of wonder.  We’ve seen flying carpets before but not like this one, but it’s a comic song routine about alternative employment for the characters that brings the house down.

Kelvin Towse leads a tight group of musicians. The glamorous dancers are complemented by kids from the Classic Academy of Dance. The belly laughs don’t stop coming and the impetus never flags.

This production is excellent value and unrelenting fun.  You couldn’t wish for a better show.


Genie Us!


Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 22nd December, 2015


Every year the Hippodrome can be relied on to provide the biggest panto – big name stars surrounded by spectacle – and this year is no disappointment. In fact, all in all, it’s their strongest panto offering for a few years, not least because the well-worn plot is strong; you have to have a framework on which to hang all the skits and routines.

From the curtain, Ben Cracknell’s lighting plunges us into drama, as the evil Abanazar (Marti Pellow) plots world domination. There is the traditional green that goes with the pantomime villain and plenty of swirling spots, combining time-honoured convention with the latest technology. Cracknell takes us from Egypt to Peking via Las Vegas – you could almost watch the show just for the lighting cues.

But that would be silly; you’d miss out on a lot of fun.

Lee Mead is a likeable if understated Aladdin and, of course, can’t get away without singing the song that brought him to national attention, Any Dream Will Do. Mead is a good fit for this company and is teased mercilessly by Julian Clary’s Slave of the Ring (the jokes write themselves). Walking innuendo Clary holds court – most of the costume budget must have gone on his range of exotic costumes (designed by Hugh Durrant) – condescending to make us laugh. His long-suffering quips and near-the-knuckle remarks are the perfect foil for the quickfire, earthy humour of Hippodrome favourite, the indefatigable Matt Slack, who provides the comic energy at the heart of the production as Wishee Washee. Andrew Ryan’s Widow Twankey is a textbook dame, holding her own amid these big personalities, and Landi Oshinowo’s commanding Empress of China is in great voice, but for me it is Marti Pellow who is the revelation of the night. He plays Abanazar straight (well, as straight as one can be in pantoland) and it’s not just his rich singing voice that delights; his moves and his whole look as he stalks and sweeps around exude an air of evil – but he is not above having a bit of fun along with the rest. He’s so good I almost want his wicked plan to succeed!

It’s bright, brash and deliciously low-brow. Everything you could want from a panto – apart from a good old slosh scene. The things Matt Slack could do with a custard pie or a bucket of wallpaper paste! The scene in Twankey’s Laundry would have been an ideal moment for such slapstick shenanigans but I suppose something has to go in order to make time for all the rest. We do get a knockabout physical routine in which Slack joins comedy troupe, the Acromaniacs

The special effects provide several ‘wow’ moments. There’s a flying carpet, of course, but also a couple of huge creatures (I’m trying not to spoil the surprises) that get the children gasping. The almost obligatory 3D sequence provides an impressive interlude but I think these moments are always better when a character or two interacts with them.

Alan McHugh’s script pops with pop culture references, local and topical references, while allowing Clary to have his head, so to speak. Choreography by Karen Bruce keeps the energy coming from the ensemble – Qdos Productions goes all out to fill the Hippodrome stage. This is pantomime-as-event and it works wonderfully.

Garish, glaring and gaudy, this Aladdin is a rich pudding of a show. I suggest you indulge yourself in a massive helping. Perhaps I’ll even go back for seconds.

Abanazar (Marti Pellow) - credit Keith Pattison

Marti Pellow’s Abanazar (Photo: Keith Pattison)



Chuckles with the Chuckles


Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 15th December, 2015


Every pantomime version of Peter Pan has expectations to fulfil: people expect to see certain things from the original play as well as all the fun and overt theatricality of the pantomime. Alan McHugh’s adaptation satisfies on most levels: quite a few of J M Barrie’s lines make it into the script, and we get everything we could wish from a panto – apart from a dame, which is a shame, but there is no space for one in this fun-packed adventure.

Ross Carpenter is instantly appealing as a boisterous, Puckish Pan, with a chuckle in his voice (no, not one of those Chuckles) showing how much Peter enjoys his life – something some Pans I have seen don’t seem to do. He flies with grace and runs around with boyish energy. Wendy, a difficult part because she’s often so serious, is played with wide-eyed wonder by Hannah Nicholls. Their opening scenes – indeed, much of the Barrie-like scenes – are played well but at high speed. Director David Burrows has us rattling through the story at a rate of knots; the characters have no thinking time. This is all well and good if we are familiar with the tale, but even then I want them to slow down just a little.

John Altman enjoys himself as a snarling Captain Hook, stalking around the stage and wielding a massive hook. He looks fabulous in his extravagant costume – he deserves better songs to sing. And this is true of the whole shebang. The cast do their best to sell the musical numbers, singing and dancing their hearts out, but we would prefer to hear some better-known tunes. At one point, Peter Pan asks us to join in with his crocodile song but we don’t because we can’t – we don’t know it.

Lucy Evans is good fun as a stroppy, spitefully childish Tinkerbell, while Kimmy Edwards’s Tiger Lily is exotic and in great voice. Local boys James Shaw and Archie Turner appear as John and Michael, making their professional debuts and demonstrating commitment and focus throughout. You’d think they’d been doing this for years.

Who has been doing this for years: the undisputed stars of the show, the Chuckle Brothers. Their old-school style of comedy is the perfect fit for pantomime. But here’s the bonus: the routines and skits they give us are not the commonplace moments that crop up in every panto. This brings a freshness and an air of anything-might-happen to proceedings. Seemingly effortless, Paul and Barry are supreme entertainers: the comic timing is impeccable and the interplay between their personas is never short of hilarious. Watch out for a scene with a cucumber, and a simple but effective bit involving grown-up audience participation – a refreshing change from the parade of little kids that is usually brought up for a sing-song. At first it seems that their scenes interrupt the main story but they soon become integrated into the plot, as the Smee Brothers, wannabe pirates with a conscience.

The ensemble works hard: Hook turns out to be an equal opportunities employer – there are as many sexy female pirates as there are camp male ones. Steven Harris’s choreography keeps the stage vibrant and busy, even if the songs are a tad uninspiring. Under the baton of MD David Lane, the band keeps energy levels high. And that’s what you want, in the end. You want entertainment and fun. This Peter Pan delivers belly laughs and spectacle – Hook’s pirate ship is especially striking. There is something for everyone – if the yelling of a child sitting behind me that he believes in fairies, and the lecherous exclamations of a nearby dad, seeing Tinker Bell for the first time, are anything to go by.

The Chuckle Brothers as Paul & Barry Smee

The Chuckle Brothers as Paul and Barry Smee

 Playing until Sunday 24th January, 2016 – Tickets available from the Box Office on 01902 429212 or book online at the website.