Tag Archives: Eric Potts

Larger Than Life

SEE HOW THEY RUN

Derby Theatre, Monday 7th April, 2014 

 

“There are no small parts, only small actors.”  That cliché refers to mentality rather than stature.  Massive star Warwick Davies knows there are lots of small, as in short, actors who are not getting the chance to display their talents outside of Snow White pantomimes and Gringott’s bank.  Davies set up the Reduced Height theatre company to provide just that chance and their first production, Philip King’s 1944 farce gets them off to a running start.

The play is old-fashioned but wearing well. Directed by the legendary Eric Potts, the emphasis is on getting as many laughs as possible from the material.

Davies is Reverend Lionel Tapp and shows a nice line in comic reactions, spit takes and double takes, and is ably supported by his troupe of character actors. Rachel Denning swans around as the vicar’s glamorous wife;  Francesca Papagno is an absolute hoot as local frump and busybody Miss Skillon who gets pissed as a fart and stowed in a cupboard.  Phil Holden is great fun as actor-turned-soldier Clive, and Jon Key is suitably indignant as scandalised as fuddy-duddy bishop Uncle Dudley.

It’s all played in a heightened (so to speak) style with larger-than-life characterisations.  There’s lots and lots of running around, some of it gratuitous, in this tale of disguise and mistaken identity.  Raymond Griffiths adds a touch of menace as an escaped POW with a cod German accent, Jamie John brings camp and confusion as a visiting vicar, but the stand-out of the night is Francesca Mills as Ida, the cheeky maid, all gorblimey and eye-rolling, complete with a Barbara Windsor cackle.

It’s fast paced – it has to be or it would die on its arse – and gloriously silly fun, good-natured and refreshingly uncynical in its contrivances. Eric Potts works his players hard, piling on the comic business, making use of their physicality without mockery.  There is something extra funny in seeing their little legs run, and it’s funny in another sense how their lack of height adds a dimension to the comedy.

I hope they’ll tackle a straight drama next.  This production takes giant strides away from the notion of short actors as novelty acts.

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Snow Right

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Sunday 22nd December, 2013

 

There are three reasons I travel to Stoke every year for the pantomime at the Regent.  The first is Jonathan Wilkes, the local lad made good (never mind Robbie Whatsisname).  He headlines (this year as ‘Muddles’) and from the reception he gets on his first entrance, it is clear they adore him here.  It’s easy to see why, considering his cheeky persona, boyish good looks and pop-star singing voice.  He also co-directs and over the years has developed into something of a leading light in pantomime.   He may be playing to his home audience but, speaking as an ‘outsider’, I think  he’d be a crowd-pleaser in any theatre.

Reason number two is Wilkes’s co-director and partner-in-panto, the ebullient Christian Patterson.  More often than not, Patterson is in the cross-dressing role but in this show, there is nothing like a dame.  This time he is Herman, henchman to the Wicked Queen.  He is clearly a master of the genre and seeks to make his co-stars corpse through unexpected deviations and improvisations.  In a lesser performer this might come across as self-indulgent but Patterson pitches it exactly right so that we are always in on his jokes and have as much fun as he’s having.

The third reason is the script by panto-god Eric Potts.  In command of the form, Potts crams the dialogue with quick-fire gags, good and bad.  He sticks to the plot but is skilful enough to incorporate a few surprises to keep things fresh.  In this version, he dispenses with the usual scene of the dwarfs returning to the cottage to find the fugitive princess asleep on their beds.  Instead, they rescue her from a zombie attack to the tune of Michael Jackson’s Thriller.  It’s bonkers but it works.  Potts knows not to make too many changes; the iconic scene in which Snow White accepts the poisoned apple gets the kiddies screaming.  As it should.

The humour is never far from the toilet.  This is unpretentious fare although the skills on display are deceptively sophisticated.  It takes a lot of hard work to make something appear so joyously shambolic.

Potts brings Snow White to the fore.  Played to the hilt by the winsome Katie Elin-Salt, she interacts with the audience and, at the denouement, is assertive in the face of the wicked Queen (a deliciously evil Debbie Chapman).  There is strong support from Jamie Tyler’s Prince and Phil Holden as dwarf leader, Prof.  But the show is stolen by an adorable turn from Paddy Holden as the silent Loopy.

This version allows the title characters plenty of stage time –it’s remarkable how in others they can be marginalised.  My top tip to you is if the poster for the panto doesn’t feature the eponymous characters, watch out!

It may not have the biggest budget but this Snow White is rich in fun and heart, successfully blending traditional elements with contemporary references.  I will definitely be back next year.

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Stoked!

CINDERELLA

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 3rd January, 2013

A few months ago, I attended the final of Stoke’s Top Talent, a local contest for local people.  The winner, Carrie-Ann Williams, won a part in the pantomime.  Not just a walk-on and five minutes in the spotlight but a fully integrated role.  And so, there she is, opening the show as the Fairy Godmother, speaking in thankless rhyming couplets and wafting her wand about.  Although still studying, Williams fits into the cast of professionals seamlessly.  She gets to extend her acting experience, when the Fairy Godmother goes in disguise as an old beggar woman, searching for firewood, but, of course, she is also allowed to do what she does best and show us why she, rightfully won the talent contest.  She closes the first act with her rendition of Nessun Dorma; this is no less incongruous than some of the pop songs we are subjected to, and, when the flying horse lifts Cinderella’s carriage out of the dry ice and the aria surges to its climax, it is truly spine-tingling.  It is heartening to see the contest organisers following through on their promise.

The panto belongs to Jonathan Wilkes, local hero.  He co-directs as well as dominating the action as Buttons; camp and cheeky bordering on puerile, Wilkes is an energetic presence, thoroughly at home in this genre and, indeed, this venue.  He can do no wrong with this crowd and it is easy to see why.  Tall, good-looking with a pleasant, old school pop-singer voice, Wilkes rules the roost.

He is supported by his co-director Christian Patterson as ugly sister Stacey – these two are clearly on the same wavelength and are enjoying themselves as much as the audience – and Torchwood’s Kai Owen as Nessa, Stacey’s equally obnoxious sibling.  As you’d expect the costumes and the banter are outrageous.  There is an emphasis on toilet humour and physical comedy, peppered with local namedropping and pop culture references.  It’s knockabout fun, perhaps slapdash on the surface, but Wilkes and Patterson know exactly what they’re doing.

Eric Potts’s script focuses on the comedy.  The jokes are quick fire and relentless, old, new, borrowed and blue, but Potts is also an advocate of the traditional pantomime routines, and so we get “Who’s in first” and “Busy Bee, Busy Bee” – the first a dazzling example of cross-talk, the second hilarious slapstick that still works brilliantly.

Rebecca Lisewski’s Cinderella is confidant rather than hard-done by, with a strong singing voice.  Her duets with Jonathan Bremner’s dashing Prince Charming blend their voices well, although I found the choice of Katy Perry’s Firework a little jarring. I guess I’ve never felt like a plastic bag.

Jamie Tyler’s Dandini is an enthusiastic, upper-class twit, mugging and girning like a cartoon character, keeping the energy levels high in scenes that are basically exposition and Ian Redford’s Baron Hardup is a bumbling drunkard, ably supporting the shenanigans – he could be given more to do.

The show is thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish, managing to be up-to-date and traditional at the same time.  Of all I have seen this season, this panto has the strongest local feel, which is encouraging to see in a venue that is part of a national chain.  Wilkes, Patterson and Potts deliver the goods and pack the house.  The management must be stoked.

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Crowd Pleasers

STOKE’S TOP TALENT
Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Saturday 15th September, 2012

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of seeing Alecky Blythe’s documentary-drama Where Have I Been All My Life? – a piece that revealed the experiences of a group of local people with their local talent show, a sort of X Factor making-of. My enjoyment of that play spurred me to attend the grand final of this year’s competition, out of curiosity more than anything else.

I had a great time.

Production values were high. Taking its cue from televised tournaments of this nature, it began with a fanfare (more Mahler than Orff) with searchlights and fireworks before the upstage curtain went up and there, in silhouetted Usain Bolt pose appeared our host for the evening, local celebrity and hero, Jonathan Wilkes.

On his home turf, Wilkes can do no wrong. He is in his element, at home on stage in more ways than one. He opened with a rendition of It’s Not Unusual, achieving just the right level of cheesiness, a mild cheddar rather than a full-on gorgonzola. He introduced the panel of judges who took their places behind a table on the front row of the stalls. Their reactions and comments were projected onto screens at either side of the proscenium. The line-up included Eric Potts, king of the panto script, West End star Louise Deerman, and choreographer Kevin Adams – worthies indeed. They were accompanied by the assistant editor of the local paper sponsoring the event, Martin Tideswell, panto dame and director Christian Patterson, and panto producer Kevin Wood. With the top prize being £2,000 and a part in this year’s production of Cinderella, the stakes were pretty high.

The Regent Theatre was packed out for the final, the culmination of a week of nightly heats. Each of the twelve finalists had their own faction of supporters, some more voluble than others – a dance troupe of five is going to bring more supporters than a soloist, of course.

And so began the acts. At once I was impressed both with the quality of the production (directed by Mrs Wilkes herself) but also the high standard of the acts. This was to be no village hall festival of embarrassment. There was no awfulness in which to relish.

Opening act, 3D, set the bar high: two girls and a boy, all aged eleven, performing a more than competent dance routine. Next 14-year-old Leanne belting out Whitney Houston’s I Have Nothing. Then 12 year-old Reece – a theme was established early on: the contestants are all so young. Reece’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah got the better of him, unfortunately. It was the wrong choice of song for someone lacking in life experience – this thought was to recur a couple of times as the evening progressed.

Shae Maunders, 15 years old and accompanying herself on the ukulele, was a breath of fresh air – the first to perform without a backing track, her quirky medley took us from the Beatles‘ Can’t Buy Me Love to Monty Python’s Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, via Bruno Mars’s Lazy Song among others. It was a refreshing change of pace and she instantly became one of my favourites. Shae was then eclipsed by 20 year old, David Jiminez-Hughes – what this young man can do with an acoustic guitar and a couple of pedals is phenomenal. This was an individual displaying an extraordinary talent, rather than singing what they think they’re expected to sing, or dancing the way they think they’re expected to dance. It was beautiful.

The first half was closed by two 8 year old gymnasts dressed as other local hero Robbie Williams in Let Me Entertain You face paint. Skilful and confident “NRG” bounced around the stage like miniature muscle men on elastic.

By the interval I was glad I wasn’t on the judging panel. A tough decision already.

The second half was opened by Louise Deerman performing D C Lee’s See The Day, a bonus indeed! You’ll have heard Louise Deerman perform without realising: she’s the voice of Confused dot com.

Back to the acts: a dance troupe called Mini Mix who had won the Sentinel’s online readers’ vote. Again, it was more than competent but not really my taste. This is where acts like this need what is known as the X or Wow factor – something to lift them above the others performing this kind of thing.

Bradley Hammond (17) performed Feeling Good (fish in the sea, you know how I feel – that one) pleasingly enough with an individual vocal quality. With a bit of coaching to sort out some of his breathing, he could do well next year. Katie Barlow (16) was a vision of elegance, note perfect and technically superior but again I question the choice of song. The emotional range of singers needs to be considered when selecting material.

Winners of the audience vote, comedy duo Martyn & Cole, blew me away. One lanky with a mop of hair, the other stout with glasses, these two performed a routine of dance numbers that was technically excellent and very funny. Their Beyonce Single Ladies segment was astounding. And I suddenly had a new favourite act!

Oldest in the final at a staggering 23, Carrie-Ann Williams sang Nessun Dorma. When it began I wondered why she hadn’t chosen an aria written for the female voice. It soon became clear. She raised the roof with this popular crowd-pleaser. Everyone was blown away.

Finally, another girl group, this one called Dolly Mix. Very tight as a unit and technically impressive, but I come back to my earlier point, something extra is needed to raise them above other acts of this type.

The judges went backstage for their unenviable task of selecting the winner. When the standard is so high across the board it ultimately comes down to a matter of taste in the end. The audience was left to watch video footage of auditions. There were the older contestants, including some pensioners who try for it every year, and it was clear we’d had some narrow escapes.

At last, the verdict was in. It was a genuinely tense moment as they filed back to their seats. Jonathan Wilkes called all the acts on stage and wove between them, dismissing them in random order with a simple “It’s not your night”. The way those kids took this rejection on the chin and left the stage in good spirits is testament to the way the whole thing is organised and executed.

None of my particular favourites reached the final three – the comedy duo would have fitted in very well with Eric Potts’s panto stylings, I felt. Maybe next year, lads.

In third was Dolly Mix, getting £500 to split between them.

In second was NRG, the little gymnasts and very popular within the house.

The winner was…. (Unnecessary pause to manipulate the tension)… opera singer Carrie-Ann. A worthy choice and the look of shock and surprise that struck her was a genuinely heart-warming moment. Somehow she managed to pull herself together and perform the song again and provide a rousing finale to a very enjoyable evening.

I look forward to hearing her sing again, probably at Prince Charming’s ball. When she sang “Vincero!” the first time, I should have believed her.


It’s Beneath You!

PANTOS ON STRIKE
Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, Tuesday 17th January, 2012

This “show for grown-up boys and girls” has a sense of humour that makes Mrs Brown’s Boys seem like Chekhov. The story, such as it is, involves Robbie Williams’s mate, Jonathan Wilkes teaming up with Peter Kay’s mate, Paddy McGuinness when the Fairy Godmother (a very game Zoe Tyler) summons them to Pantoland to save the day. The Princess has been kidnapped. The villain (Brian Capron having a ball) is demanding that Evil be allowed to conquer Good for a change – pantomimes across the land are threatened. Characters form a picket line, refusing to comply until the Princess is rescued.

Or something.

Whatever it is they’re supposed to be doing, they do it at a cracking pace – it’s all about getting from one pantomime set-up to the next. No one is allowed to slow the action down by going into their act. And so we get a messy kitchen scene, plenty of “He’s behind you” and even a flying scene. It’s all childish and juvenile but if you disengage your brain it’s very funny. Too many scenes end with an expletive for a punch line, I found – a sort of get out clause for every situation, and there are times when the stage is cluttered with characters with nothing to do but, on the whole, the silliness and puerile humour work very well.

Jonathan Wilkes (who co-wrote and directed the thing) is the same affable panto persona he usually is. A likable, cheeky chappie who immerses himself into the spirit of the piece wholeheartedly and the audience (admittedly, it’s his home town) are in the palm of his hand, precisely because he treats them as any other panto crowd. The audience regressed to their childhood – that part of childhood spent behind the bicycle sheds. Wilkes is an accomplished performer in musical theatre but pantomime is definitely his milieu. It is a sphere in which few are able to perform so expertly.

Paddy McGuinness is, in contrast, an unwilling participant, mocking and belittling the conventions of pantomime. He is punished (or rewarded, depending on your viewpoint) by attracting the sexual favours of a transvestite dwarf (the energetic Phil Holden) – it will distract him from his habitual abuse of a toy rabbit while he watches a video of Watership Down… You should have a strong idea of the kind of material we’re dealing with here. One can detect the hand of panto god Eric Potts in the structure. The subversion, I suspect, came largely from the brain of McGuinness.

Christian Patterson’s Dame Dolly Dumpling is a joy. A traditional Dame but with a foul mouth and questionable manners, he gives an authenticity to the proceedings – the rest of the cast may be attractive young things in sexy fairy tale outfits, but Dame Dolly is the real deal. Zoe Tyler (Loose Woman and singing coach) is more than up for it, and Brian Capron, formerly the baddie in TV’s longest-running panto, Coronation Street, has fun with his declamations and provoking us all to swear at him.

Politically incorrect and exploitative, you might say, but within context the only criterion for judging Pantos On Strike should be “Is it funny?”

Oh yes, it fucking is.


There’s the Rub

ALADDIN
Milton Keynes Theatre, Tuesday 10th January, 2012

With a script by Eric Potts, this Aladdin veers from what has become the norm with this production. We don’t get a 3D genie of the lamp – instead we get Camilla Dallerup, mangling her lines and far too many Strictly Come Dancing references – amusing at first, they bog down some scenes and soon become tiresome and unfunny. But we also get Gareth Gates’s Aladdin riding on a magic carpet, so it’s a case of swings and roundabouts.

Gates is very easy on the eye and on the ear. His voice is perfect for the pop songs he is given and he also displays a neat sense of comic timing and tomfoolery. He is ably supported by John Barr as Widow Twankey, and impressionist Paul Burling as Wishee Washee. Burling is excellent in his handling of the audience and when his impersonations are included as throwaway lines of dialogue they are very funny. When he launches into one of his routines and the action grinds to a halt, the impressions are quick fire and hit-and-miss, and you want to shout, Just get on with it, man!

The almost obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas routine almost descended into total anarchy among audience members and went on for far too long, but this is counterbalanced with an absolutely hilarious sequence between Burling and Barr, dressed inexplicably as ballet dancers, performing with a balloon. Very near the knuckle, this scene was one of the funniest I’ve seen in panto this season. A pity then that the laundrette scene was lacklustre and low on slapstick.

Adam Pearce’s Abanazar is in fine voice and played to perfection. Nicola Brazil imbues Princess Jasmine with a spark of fun and her duets with Gates are all very strong. It is since the Disney version that the Princess has to be called Jasmine, rather than the Badroulbadour of tradition. In fact, as a pantomime, Aladdin has always been a bizarre mix of Arabian Nights and Ancient China.

Director Andrew C Wadsworth (also appearing as the Emperor) is wise to keep things traditional and for the most part this production is a delight to watch. Also, the pop songs fit the action apart from a curtain call rendition of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way – a song that is almost ubiquitous in pantomimes across the land this year. I could understand Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters might sing this. I was half-expecting Tiny Tim to give us a chorus or two, but here it just seemed tacked on. A reprise of an earlier number would have done the job. If a genie were to grant me a wish, it would be for a few minor tweaks to make this show the most fun of the season.


Fun With Dick and Edna

DICK WHITTINGTON
The New Wimbledon Theatre, London, Tuesday 20th December, 2011

I was surprised to learn that this was self-proclaimed megastar Dame Edna Everage’s first foray into pantomime – one would think that this most famous of drag acts would be ideally suited to a genre that relies heavily on cross-dressing and innuendo.

I’m a fan of Barry Humphries. His characters, Dame Edna and Sir Les Patterson, are Australian monsters and wonderful creations both, but where this appearance of Melbourne’s most famous housewife didn’t quite work for me was – well, practically every time she strode or flew onto the stage. Her first entrance, flown across the auditorium in a giant wombat, had great impact and was greeted with delight and a warm welcome. After that it went downhill very quickly. The rest of the cast abandoned the stage, leaving Dame Edna to perform a monologue, a Dame Edna monologue rather than a pantomime monologue – and there’s the rub. Parents and grandparents and other assorted oldies enjoyed the suggestive jokes but after a couple of minutes, the kids were growing fidgety. It was as though they were being ignored for a few moments and the action had ground to a complete standstill. This was a pity because up until that point, things had been cracking along apace with hit-and-miss corny jokes being fired relentlessly at us – the bulk of them from Kev Orkian as Idle Jack and Eric Potts as Sarah the Cook. That’s right, kiddies, two men dressed as women in this production and it’s not even Cinderella! Sarah the Cook is more grotesque than Dame Edna, more outlandish in her attire, but her characterisation and involvement in routines all work within the world of the show. Dame Edna seems an interruption, an add-on, rather than an assimilation.

And that’s what panto is about: assimilation. Topical references and catchphrases are all brought into the world of the show, anachronistically and satirically. A mention in panto means you have become mainstream. The audience bonds in its recognition and laughter. Idle Jack breaks into a chorus of Go Compare with very little provocation, the Beckhams are mocked, Deal or No Deal is invoked… The performance ends with the entire company belting out a rendition of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, for pity’s sake!

The intrusion of Dame Edna aside, the rest of the show gels extremely well precisely because it doesn’t deviate from the time-honoured structure of the story. Baddie King Rat (Richard Calkin) is perhaps a little underused but the two main comedians, Orkian and Potts, milk the fun for all its worth. There is a kitchen scene involving self-raising sausages that is especially hilarious – hearkening back to ancient Greek comedy, but you don’t need to know any of that to sit back and enjoy the show. The pair (of actors, not sausages) is strongly supported by Ben Goffe as the diminutive Captain Titchworth. His treatment at their hands during a riotous rendition of The 12 Days of Christmas borders on bullying – he is evidently a very good sport as well as a skilled tumbler.

Sam Attwater’s Dick is upright and appealing but the show belongs to the comic performers. Stoke-on-Trent stalwart, Eric Potts provides not only a powerful turn as the dame but he also directs the action and has written the script, forged from his vast knowledge of the genre. He knows the traditions and has a lively ear for contemporary references to make those traditions seem fresh. He must be the king of pantomime these days, more than deserving of that crown since the passing of the great John Morley.

We are treated to a 3D sequence – a growing trend at pantomimes – for which we are obliged to don Dame Edna glasses. This is fun and very effective but I worry that the more traditional black theatre routines will be lost altogether. It is somehow more magical to see special effects done live than on a video clip.

All in all this is a very strong show. Dame Edna needs to be in role as a panto character rather than a visting dignitary who brings things to a halt (literally, in one scene!), bringing with her pacing problems.

Otherwise it rattles along at a rate of knots,
Thanks to script and direction by Eric Potts.