Tag Archives: Michael Harrison

What a Croc!

PETER PAN

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.

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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

 

 

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Rubbing the Right Way

ALADDIN

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.

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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.

 


Dick jokes (and sings and dances)

Panto Launch: DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 7th September, 2016

 

Today I was fortunate enough to be invited to the press launch for the Hippodrome’s pantomime.  This year it’s Dick Whittington and appearing in the title role is the irrepressible all-rounder John Barrowman, star of stage, screen and page – he’s also an author now, writing in partnership with his sister Carole.   I’ve been a big fan from way back in the days of Going Live!  and I first saw him on stage in Sunset Boulevard – and I’ve been low-level stalking him ever since.

Also appearing are The Krankies, with whom Barrowman has built up a rapport having appeared with them in panto in Glasgow.  Musical theatre star Jodie Prenger will be Fairy Bow Bells.  Perennial favourite Matt Slack returns for the fourth year running to play Idle Jack, and King Rat will be none other than Phil Mitchell himself, EastEnders favourite, Steve McFadden.

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I got to hang out with John Barrowman on a splendidly gaudy throne.  What follows is a transcript cobbled together from our chat and a general Q&A session.

Q. Hello, I’m William. I write a blog called Bum On A Seat.

John Barrowman:  Congratulations!  Put your bum here.

We take the obligatory selfie (“Smile, William!  Smile!”) and I tell him I’m looking forward to him giving his Dick to Birmingham this Christmas.

JB: I’m looking forward to giving it.  All over Birmingham.

Clearly the man is up for tiresome innuendo as much as I am.  And that laugh is infectious.  Barrowman is a bath bomb of a man, filling the place with his personality.

Q. John, you spend a lot of time here and a lot of time in the States. You straddle the Atlantic.

JB. There’s a joke for the panto right there!

Q. Why hasn’t panto taken off in the States? Why hasn’t it exported well?

JB. They don’t understand it. They see the dame and they think it’s a drag queen, which is a whole different type of performance.  They don’t understand the humour, they don’t understand the irony; it’s a British thing.   When I came back to the UK in 1989, I kind of looked at it and I thought, what is going on?  But now I get it.  I totally get it.  I love that we comment on social things, local things and political things.  We make fun of the audience and of ourselves.  People in the UK get pantomime, they get the humour.

Q. And what do you think of the Birmingham audience?

JB. I love being here. I love the people – they’re very welcoming. When I do my concerts, they sell out – I do two nights.  I love shopping in Birmingham.  The German market over Christmas is just amazing.  Birmingham people love the tradition of panto and that’s what brings me back here.  Birmingham has always wanted me back and that’s a thrill for me. Birmingham in winter, it’s really cloudy and dull but the people are friendly and warm and there’s always a smile when you walk down the street.

Q. Will you be attempting a Brummie or Dudley accent this time?

JB. Absolutely not! I’m terrible.  The Cat’s going to be Brummie.  I don’t know who’s playing the Cat yet.  I’ve asked for someone very hunky.

Q. Do you find that people travel to see it, because it’s you?

JB. I have an international audience that comes from as far away as China. France… From Germany, from South America…and the States, and Canada…from all over, and it’s not just two, it’s group-loads come. And they don’t come once, they come every night. And the one thing they have to – I’ve told them – they’ve tended to laugh before the joke, because they wanted the audience members to know they knew what was coming, and I had to tell them, Stop! Because he (Ian Krankie) would come off and he’d go, They’re fucking blowing the jokes again, and he’d say, Can you tell your fucking fans to stop blowing the jokes?  I had to go on Twitter and say stop laughing.  He’s not getting to say the tag lines.

Q. What’s it like working with The Krankies?

JB. They’re a national treasure. I’ve worked with them for five – six years.  The reason it does work is there’s no egos.  We’re there to have fun.  We’re like a family.  We have our arguments but we fix it and move on.  The chemistry – I can’t explain it – but when you see it, you’ll wet yourself.  Part of the show is what happens in the wings.  If those two go off script, I’ll chuck one on stage.  If things go wrong, we tend to keep it in – the audience think it’s happening for the first time, but if it works, we keep it in, and that’s how it develops.

He is keen to speak out against those who might deride panto.  With the Krankies at hand, his accent reverts to his native Scottish.

JB. Listen, anybody who takes the mickey out of people who do pantomime, they need to have their arses kicked, because this is the hardest – one of the hardest things in theatre and in the entertainment business to do because you’re doing two shows a day, consistently, you have to maintain that over the course – even if you’re sick. Energy levels have to be up; you cannot waver.  And, you know, people – some people come in and they do it for the first time, they get a shock.

I refrain from making a remark about the stamina of his Dick.  Just about.

Q. What can we expect from this Dick Whittington?

JB. The end of Act One – just a tease: I’ll be upside down… (suggestive grin)

Director Michael Harrison adds: King Rat will have the biggest rat.  The end of Act One will not be the usual Dick Whittington dream.  3D is back: there’s an underwater sequence.  The special effects have become as much a part of the show as anything else.

Rehearsals begin at the end of November.  A rough draft will be given to everyone for them to bring ideas, for routines, for songs.  It all sounds like a lot of fun and almost makes me wish I was on the other side of the curtain with them.  I can’t wait to see it but for today I’m glad of the chance to meet a real favourite.

Dick Whittington runs from Monday 19th December until Sunday 29th January.  Tickets are available now on 0844 338 5000 or from birminghamhippodrome.com

barrowman-and-shakespeare

Together at last: Barrowman meets Shakespeare

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Chuckles, Cotton and Pan

PETER PAN Panto Launch

The Molineux Centre, Wolverhampton, Thursday 3rd September, 2015

 

The Grand Theatre’s pantomime this year will be Peter Pan, starring the indefatigable Chuckle Brothers as a pair of hapless pirates, Paul and Barry Smee, and EastEnders’ John Altman as Captain Hook. First though, I meet newcomer Ross Carpenter who will be flying high in the title role.

Only 22 years old – but he doesn’t look it – Carpenter is a personable young man whose boyish good looks make him great casting. “All my family and friends call me Peter Pan,” he says, “because I’m like that anyway.” He says you have to be Peter Pan in real life to make Peter Pan believable; the role is “a heightened version of myself.”

No stranger to the wires, Carpenter first played the role last year in Northampton and admits the flying is daunting at first but it’s the best part! Now, I may be a boy who never grew up, but I’ll leave all the aerobatics to him.

Ross Carpenter IS Peter Pan

Ross Carpenter IS Peter Pan

Next up, I encounter TV’s Nasty Nick Cotton, John Altman who is of course much nicer in real life. (That’s what acting means, William). I ask how he’s going to approach Hook and he tells me he won’t necessarily be Cockney – although there will of course be Nick Cotton references. Pirates of the Caribbean-y, he says, a roguish pirate. He is keen to point out that he doesn’t regard himself as typecast in the role of villain, and when you look at his CV you see there is more to him than Soap’s nastiest baddie. I ask about musical theatre roles and he reveals he’d like to try something like Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Walking around with Nick Cotton’s face is all right, he says. “I was worried when I first took it on but it’s OK.” He avoids pubs at closing time when people might get a bit lairy, so it does affect decisions about where to go and when, but on the whole, it’s good.

I ask about Shakespeare. “Yes, good question.” He’d love to do it but never has. He feels ready for it now. “When you study Shakespeare as a child you don’t appreciate it, you don’t understand most of it: the love story say of Romeo and Juliet, and the rival factions. You don’t realise that’s something that goes on all the time, all over the world.”

I say I can easily see him as a Richard III.

“Thank you. Or Shylock maybe. That’s something I’d like to try.”

There is something about Altman, beyond his warmth – a hint of wickedness, perhaps. “I’ll be striking fear into the hearts of the Wolverhampton peasants,” he says. And you believe it.

Slinging his Hook: John Altman talks to Jason Forrest.

Slinging his Hook: John Altman talks to Jason Forrest.

Paul and Barry Chuckle greet me with a twinkle in their eye. “It’s great to be back,” says Paul (not the small one, the other one), “We love Wolverhampton.”

Astonishingly, it will be their 49th year in panto. Add to that one they made for the telly, and Peter Pan will be their 50th. I ask what’s the secret of their longevity. “We won’t go!” laughs Paul.

Brother Barry adds, “The comedy we do is for everybody, across the board. That’s probably why we’re still going.”

Paul: We never do stuff for kids. Or for mums and dads. What we do is for everybody. If it’s not funny, we won’t do it.

As influences they cite their own dad, who was a gang show performer, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, and Abbott and Costello.

I ask them to describe pantomime to someone who has never heard of it, a Martian perhaps, or an American.

“Fun,” says Paul. “In our pantos that’s all we aim at: comedy. It’s a fairy story –

“With laughs and a few songs thrown in,” Barry finishes the thought for him. Audiences can expect a lot of laughs, pies in faces, and nothing but fun.

Producer Michael Harrison says he sees pantomime as a distinct art form, like opera and ballet. “There are some people who can do it, and some that can’t.” Judging by the line-up I’ve met so far, I’d say this particular panto is in very safe hands.

Peter Pan runs at the Grand Theatre from December 12th until January 24th. I can’t wait!

To Smee, to you: Barry and Paul Chuckle.

To Smee, to you: Barry and Paul Chuckle.


Snow White Drifts

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Saturday 21st December, 2013

 

You can depend on the Birmingham Hippodrome to provide a Christmas show that is opulent, extravagant, spectacular, dripping with glitter and with big-name stars.  This year is no exception but what sets this production above some of the recent offerings is its sheer entertainment value.  This is an extremely funny show indeed.

All eight of the title characters, however, are hardly in it.  Danielle Hope’s Snow White gets a couple of opportunities to belt out ballads (which she does very well) but doesn’t get to interact with the seven little men in whose cottage she takes refuge.  As for those seven little men, here we don’t get actors who are dwarfs; we get actors in novelty costumes scuttling around, lip-synching to a pre-recorded track, it seems to me.  It’s a fun moment when they first appear but the joke wears thin – then again, they have so little to do on stage, it hardly matters how they are presented*.

This production is not so much a pantomime as a variety show with a pantomime twist and – it turns out – there is nothing wrong with this approach.  Where do we get to see old-school variety anymore?

Gok Wan gets things off to a flying start as the Man in the Mirror, swinging above the stage in a frame like a glittered toilet seat.  This is Wan’s first outing of this type and proves himself game for a laugh even if his production number is a bit of a stretch too far.  Eastenders’s John Partridge is the dashing Prince, a Royal song-and-dance man, reminding us of his roots in dance and musical theatre, and works as a warm-up act at the start of both halves.   He also struts and poses in proper panto style – he is an all-round entertainer and easy on the eye too.

Another consummate performer, Gary Wilmot, is the Dame.  He is underused, I feel.  Yes, he sings a comic song about baltis in Birmingham and another of mawkish sentiment about being a mother, but on the whole he is very much relegated to a supporting role for the comedic antics of the others.  The Dame has two sons, you see, and we see a lot of them.  There is Muddles – ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, who gets a lot of stage time to give us his act, including pulling a couple from the audience and using them as life-size dummies – and there is Oddjob, played by the energetic Matt Slack, who openly acknowledges his Brian-Conleyesque approach.  They are both very entertaining and bring a lot of energy and laughter – at the expense of the drama of the fairytale.

It falls to the fabulous Stephanie Beacham to keep the story going as the Wicked Queen “Sadista”.  Miss Beacham makes an elegant villain with claws and spikes and a voice that drips evil.  It is she above all who anchors the show in pantomime rather than let it fly off into full-blown music hall.

Producer/director Michael Harrison goes for glamour and glitz rather than drama and danger.  It’s a show about surface rather than what’s underneath and, in this instance, it’s none the poorer for it.  There is one sequence, a silly song about alternative jobs the comic characters could do instead of working for the Queen that gets the biggest reaction of the night.  It involves a frying pan, a feather duster, a cricket bat and a policeman’s truncheon and a breathtaking display of comic timing, demonstrating the delight that can be derived from watching skilled performers live on stage.

This Snow White may have drifted from a purist’s view of pantomime but it’s a hell of an enjoyable night out.

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*Cheeky plug: The dwarfs reminded me of a crime novel what I wrote