Tag Archives: Ben Harlow

Not Short on Fun


Malvern Theatres, Thursday 19th December, 2013


Once again Malvern Theatres come up with a Christmas cracker of a pantomime – it works so well because it upholds the familiar traditions of the genre.  At the helm is Chris Pizzey who not only directs (and provided additional material to Andrew Ryan’s marvellously corny script) but also appears as funnyman-in-chief, Muddles, jester to the Wicked Queen.  Pizzey has an instantly likable persona, energetic and clearly enjoying himself.

My only quibble with this Snow White is it takes a while to get going.  I’m not sure that reading out birthday messages and shoutouts to members of the audience is best placed in Muddles’s first monologue.

Olivia Birchenough is a perky Snow White with a more than decent singing voice.  Songs from the Disney animated feature are put to good use along with more up-to-date pop numbers that get the youngsters in the audience singing along.  Pantos that use ‘original’ songs miss a trick in terms of audience engagement.  Seasoned old pro Charles Burden (if I may call him that) is a splendid dame, Snow White’s nursemaid, Dolly, holding his own when it comes to banter with the audience and working like a dream with Pizzey in time-honoured panto routines.

Sue Holderness is an impressive, imperious and enjoyable villain – you almost want her evil plot to succeed!   It is her Wicked Queen who steers the silliness into darker waters.  When she offers Snow White the poisoned apple there is genuine tension in this iconic moment, even though we know what’s going to happen.  The kiddies near me were thoroughly caught up in the action.

Ben Harlow is a charming Prince Frederick, dashing in a camp and goofy kind of way, and director Pizzey gets a lot out of his strong singing voice and his comedic skills.  Pizzey also capitalises on the talents of one of the dwarfs in particular, bringing out ‘Smiler’ (Jamie John) to join the nurse, Muddles and the Prince for a raucous rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas – although I have seen rowdier.

Routines like the ghost scene are executed superbly well, proving that the traditions and tropes of the form are still effective and still have currency in the hands of skilful performers.  And above all, it’s still very, very funny.


Having a Barney

Churchill Theatre, Bromley, Sunday 8th January, 2012

Of all the pantomimes, Snow White is probably the one that is most indelibly marked by the Disney version. Our expectations are both met and confounded in this production. We get several of the classic songs, Whistle While You Work, Someday My Prince Will Come, and so forth, but because of copyright restrictions, the dwarves have to be given different names. Grumpy becomes Grouchy, Dopey becomes Soppy and so on. But this is all by the by. If you want to watch Disney’s seminal version, do so. I was there to see a pantomime and enjoy the tropes of the genre as they stand – that is where my expectations lie.

The show – and this was its final performance – does not disappoint. The elements of traditional panto are all there, apart from the cross-dressing: no dame, no principal boy, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.

The familiar tale is diverted in this version by the character of Muddles, the court jester, a sort of Buttons figure, who encourages most of the audience participation and interaction. Played by TV’s Barney Harwood, this is no bad thing at all. His cheeky face is matched by his cheeky humour. Less of a jester and more of a naughty schoolboy, Muddles ambles his way through the plot, mocking the authority figures and entertaining his friends. There is more toilet humour here than in any panto I’ve seen this season. He wouldn’t get away with this on Blue Peter. Harwood is a confident, easy-going presence on the stage, able to throw away lines and clown around in an exaggerated manner. There is always a twinkle in his eye and a knowing look to the audience. The kids all adore him anyway and it is not an arduous task for him to win over the mums and dads.

As the Wicked Queen, Patsy Kensit does her share of chewing the scenery. She has her moments and is clearly enjoying herself. She doesn’t get to sing so there is no danger of hearing any of her Eighth Wonder songs like…um, well, you know, that one…

Sarah Lark, from the Search-for-a-Nancy TV talent show, is a likeable and energetic Snow White (the costume is pure Disney) but the surprise of the night comes in the form of Prince Frederick (Ben Harlow) a tall, gangling figure, preening and posturing like a male model-cum-matinee idol. It is a lovely touch that adds humour to what can be a bland character.

Technically, the show gives us figures appearing in a giant crystal ball and a video projection for the Magic Mirror – most of our enjoyment comes from Barney Harwood and his double act with former EastEnders scruffbag, David Spinx as Ramsbottom, the Queen’s henchman. He plays a mean electric guitar, let me tell you.

Unlike some other productions, this one gives us real-live actual dwarves, some of them better performers than others. I particularly liked Nathan Phillips as Grouchy and Lauren Harrand as Kip. There was a poignant scene around Snow White’s coffin and even a darker tone with the Wicked Queen being punished rather than rehabilitated as in some versions.

Judging by the numbers in attendance and the buzz of excitement as the audience shuffled to the exits, I’d say panto is alive and well as long as shows of this standard continue to be produced.