Tag Archives: Jonathan Wilkes

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.

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The Cheeky Boys: Christian Patterson and Jonathan Wilkes

 

 

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Perfect Fit

CINDERELLA

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Wednesday 28th December, 2016

 

Seemingly a permanent fixture for the Regent’s annual pantomime, the dream team double act of local hero Jonathan Wilkes and Welsh actor Christian Patterson are back with one of their best efforts in years.  Appearing as one of the ugly sisters, Patterson has also written the script – a faithful, fast-moving and above all funny version that allows traditional routines, topical references and a rate of one-liners per minute that no other show this year can match.

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Wilkes, on his home turf, can do no wrong, but he does not rest on his laurels, working tirelessly (This year my name is Buttons) to ensure everyone has a great time.  His first entrance, purportedly in a cage borne by a gorilla, shows a level of self-awareness and mockery that endears him from the off: “I call him Robbie; he carries me everywhere.”  Wilkes has a cheeky stage persona, excellent comic timing and also a good, old-fashioned pop singer’s voice that is a treat to hear.

In the title role is newcomer Finley Guy, a young performer who exudes star quality.  Her Cinders is easily a match for the more seasoned professionals and she is more than able to carry scenes on her own.  Her singing voice is strong and pleasant, making her one of the best I’ve seen in the role.  Similarly, Owen Broughton’s Prince Charming makes a striking impression.  Ian Stroughair’s Dandini is a wildly camp, flamboyant gay man but it is pleasing that his sexuality is not the butt (ha!) of any jokes – he is included and accepted, and that is refreshing.  Michael Geary is fun as a wild-haired Baron Hardup who finally asserts himself, and Hannah Potts brings rhymes and giggles as a bubbly Fairy Cupcake – the transformation of Cinders from rags to ballgown is truly breath-taking and magical, right before our very eyes.

Simon Nehan pairs up with Patterson as the other sister, a villainous pair who also provide much of the laughter.  The comic timing is impeccable – we love to hate them.  Routines like Busy Bee and The 12 Days of Christmas are always hilarious when tackled by such skilled performers – youngsters in the audience who may not have seen them before are just as tickled as those of us who know what’s coming.

The dancers, choreographed by Nikki Wilkes, are excellent; elegantly acrobatic, the boys especially impress.  Clearly, along with Guy and Broughton, students at the Wilkes Academy are of the highest calibre.

A glittering glut of gags and wonder, this Cinderella satisfies on every count.  Wilkes and Patterson have triumphed again!

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Rising star: Finley Guy as Cinderella

 

 


Floppy Dick

DICK WHITTINGTON

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Sunday 28th December, 2014

Every year I make the pilgrimage to the Potteries for one reason only: the Jonathan Wilkes pantomime. My reviews of previous productions all say the same thing: Wilkes is in his element, it’s great rough-and-ready knockabout fun, and so on.

And so I was looking forward to more of the same this year. That’s part of the deal with pantomime – you get more of the same.

Disappointingly, this year the shine has gone off the bauble. There is something not quite there. It’s not the production values; the show looks great. It’s not the music – in fact, the musical numbers sound a cut above anything else you might hear on the panto circuit, thanks to the astounding talent of West End star Louise Dearman as Alice Fitzwarren, and energy levels rise when the hard-working dance troupe comes on to perform Nikki Wilkes’s choreography.

The problem, I believe, lies in the lacklustre direction. Wilkes and his regular dame Christian Patterson share the director’s chair, not for the first time, but I detect a touch of complacency in their approach. On stage they are an excellent double act. They have proved this year after year and they are obviously good mates in the real world. But they do need a good kick up the arse.

The show comes across as more of a walk-through than a run. Familiar routines and corny jokes are all in place, but there is a sense of just going through the motions. The 12 Days of Christmas is particularly offhand and slovenly. It’s not even a matter of a lack of surprises. When the material is so familiar, you need to see it delivered with skill and precision. Wilkes and Patterson can do, and have done, much better than this.  It feels like they are phoning it in this year.

At one point a giant inflatable sausage springs from a hob, giving rise to off-colour gags, which may or may not be ad libs, and for a brief moment, the old sparkle is there. But, like the sausage, the show can’t maintain this level of freshness and fun and begins to flag and flop again.

On his home turf, Wilkes can do no wrong in the eyes of the locals. He is the family favourite doing his annual party trick. But I think the Wilkes-Patterson partnership needs perhaps to take a break. Or get in an outside director to put them through their paces. This Dick is flaccid and unsatisfying when it should be giving us a wild ride and leaving us breathless.

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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.


Local Heroes

WHERE HAVE I BEEN ALL MY LIFE?

New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 7th April, 2012

 

Carrying on and celebrating the New Vic’s tradition of social documentary dramas with a strong local (North Staffordshire) identity, comes this new piece by writer Alecky Blythe and director Theresa Heskins.

The set is a stark, almost lunar, landscape.  Mounds of nutty slack and broken china house television sets.  The area’s industrial past has been superseded in this day and age.  The Potteries are now home to rife unemployment – people who stay at home and watch the telly.  I have to confess my heart sank a little when I realised the show is based around an X Factor type talent show – often the recourse of unimaginative GCSE drama groups – but my initial misgivings were quickly washed away by the style and execution of the piece.

The words spoken by the cast are all verbatim.  The people who entered the 2010 “Stoke’s Top Talent” contest provide all the dialogue in its naturalistic, often hilarious, glory.  But further to that, the production goes a step further.  The actors are wired with earpieces.  Recordings of the real people speaking the lines are played to them and the actors deliver those lines with the same inflection and intonation as close to the original speaker as possible.  The actor is the mouthpiece for the person.  While this is a peculiar way of working for the performers, isolated as they are from the atmosphere in the auditorium, it pays dividends for the audience.  As characters emerge then come and go, and we follow their experiences in the audition process, the warmth and humanity of these people shine through.

I couldn’t help thinking of Creature Comforts.

The humour, unconscious on the part of the speaker in some cases, is delightful.  “My girlfriend’s 24,” boasts a 19 year old contestant, “and she’s only got two kids.”

“Jonathan Wilkes” hosts the heats, but this contest is not about the glorification of the judges.  Neither is it about holding up the contestants to ridicule.  What comes to the fore is how important this competition is to the people of Stoke on Trent, now there is nothing else to offer them hope of bettering themselves.  The prize money of £1,000 and the chance to appear in professional panto for a month may seem small beer compared to the large-scale televised talent shows – but the contestants recognise it has a start, as a chance, a leg-up.  They go back, year after year, to try again, and they take it seriously.

You couldn’t get more of a local flavour if you sat through the show stuffing yourself with oatcakes.  But the show is much more than a local show for local people.  As an outsider to the region, I saw the national relevance of the play.  Stoke-on-Trent  becomes a microcosm for the whole country.  The obsession for these talent contests.  The death of industry.  The lack of opportunity compared to the wealth of talent and ambition.  It’s all there.  This is a state-of-the-nation piece, documenting a moment in time.  It is a celebration of the human spirit in bleak and trying times.

Theresa Heskins has collected an impressive ensemble of actors who slip in and out of a range of characters to populate the show.  Samuel Hargreaves plays 14 year old Sam, the eventual winner.  His talent and ambition are nicely counterpointed by the bathos of the slightly camp Northern bathos of his family.  The show ends with his rendition of “Let Me Entertain You” by local boy done good, Robbie Williams.  The song takes on extra significance.  The boy is at the outset of his career.  We are not told what’s become of him in the two years since his pantomime appearance.

One of my favourite actors on the planet, Michael Hugo is superb as slightly thuggish, skinhead Mark, struggling with all manner of problems and trying to stay out of trouble so he will be accepted by another means of escape from his surroundings, the armed forces.

Oliver J Hembrough evokes rather than impersonates local star-maker Jonathan Wilkes but really excels as the father in musical duo, “Lad ‘N’ Dad” – guitar, bongos and “Yummy Yummy Yummy”.

Andrew Pollard is heart-breaking as gentle charity-shop worker Graeme who can’t face the pressure of the audition process then regrets not going through with it.  Alan Bennett could write an entire show based on this man alone.

Mona Goodwin’s Kerry (runner-up in the final) displays the excitement and nervous energy and not forgetting the talent.  You really feel for her when she doesn’t win (and I knew the outcome beforehand, having seen the panto two years ago!).  Peter Temple’s pensioner Norman is finally taking his chances after a lifetime of hard work.  “Where have I been all my life?” he asks himself.  It is the line that gives the show its title, and a poignant moment about roads not taken.  Rebecca Brewer depicts a range of roles, adding to the likeability and general warmth. Angela Bain switches from middle-aged mum to ten year old little brother at the change of a shirt – the entire company proves its versatility. That is not to say this is a whitewash.  Human fallibility and the darker aspects of society are all here too.

Everyone comes out of this very well but really the show is a testament to the people of Stoke and a mirror showing what’s happening all over post-industrial Britain.  It’s more uplifting and relevant than anything Simon Cowell sticks his fingers in.

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