Tag Archives: panto

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

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Together at last: Barrowman meets Shakespeare

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Rubbing Along Nicely

ALADDIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 5th December, 2014

 

The Belgrade’s pantomime this year is that curious mix of Arabian Nights and a China that never was, the rags to riches story of Aladdin.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a principal boy take the title role – of late it has been the preserve of male soap stars and pop singers, so it is refreshing to see the traditional cross-dressing reinstated. Here, Morna Macpherson is a spirited lead and a likeable hero. As Aladdin’s brother, the lovable buffoon Wishee Washee, Craig Hollingsworth provides the bulk of the comic energy, teaming up with his mother, the flamboyant Widow Twankey – a text book panto dame performance from writer/director Iain Lauchlan.

From the moment the curtain goes up, the stage is a riot of colour, thanks to Cleo Pettitt’s bright costumes with their storybook-Oriental touches.  One quibble I have with the opening, is I’d like the audience participation to kick in earlier.  We need to be addressed and invited in.  Characters need to tell us what’s going on, rather than talking to each other.  But as soon as Wishee Washee comes on, we are well up for it.

Walking on Sunshine is the opening number and Happy is the finale; these two well-known and sing-alongable songs sandwich some unremarkable numbers which, though sung very well, don’t linger in the memory.  As I say, it’s all sung very well – you can’t fault any aspect of the performances but the choice of songs lets it down somewhat.

Overlooking that, this is a traditional, old-school pantomime and oodles of fun for people of all ages.

Arina Li is a beautiful Princess Jasmine (since the Disney cartoon, we shall never again see a Princess Beldroubadour!) with effective support from Joanne Sandi as So-Shi and also the Spirit of the Ring – bringing comedy to the former and an exotic grace to the latter.  Marcquelle Ward is a hunk of a Genie of the Lamp and Aaron Gibson makes a strong impression as a nimble and expressive palace guard.

Relishing his role as Abanazar, Sion Lloyd is delightfully wicked in that way that only panto villains have.  He’s so good at it, you almost want his evil schemes to succeed.

When it comes to William Finkenrath’s Chinese Emperor, complete with comedy accent, I don’t know whether to laugh or be uncomfortable.  In the end, I do both.  It’s a sustained comic performance and undeniably funny but the hackles of my political correctness tell me I shouldn’t be laughing.  But, if we go down that route, we’d no longer have names like Wishee Washee, and the whole thing would unravel.  Finkenrath wins me over by the force of his wit.

With spectacle, slapstick and silliness, the Belgrade’s Aladdin proves you don’t need a host of Big (and Not-so-big) Names to make as enjoyable a pantomime as you could wish for.

Arina Li and William Finkelrath (Photo: Robert Day)

Arina Li and William Finkelrath (Photo: Robert Day)


A Little Beauty

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

The Brindley, Runcorn, Saturday 28th December, 2013

Last week I saw three versions of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the trot, so it was especially refreshing to see a pantomime that is not so often performed.  Like Aladdin, our perceptions of Beauty and the Beast are indelibly coloured by the Disney film and this one owes a lot to that corporation’s stage version of its own animated feature.  This is not to the production’s deftriment – it’s one way of meeting audience expectations.  The other way is to give us the tropes and tricks we expect from a traditional pantomime.

This production does both very well.

Kate Mellors is, as you’d expect, a beautiful Belle, opening the show with the dancing villagers – one of those incongruous pop songs that seem to fit in panto! – and there is more to Belle than her looks.  She is caring, assertive and confident, attributes that many a panto heroine could do well to emulate.  The Beast – an excellent Joshua Mumby – stalks and roars and looks horrible but turns out to be kind-hearted; the message is clear: you can’t judge people by their looks.  The scariest thing about him is his penchant for singing the back catalogue of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Villain of the piece is the arrogant and vain Anton, played by Andy Moss (Rhys off of Hollyoaks) in his first panto.  His performance is slick and controlled, demonstrating his versatility – in fact, he’s so enjoyable it’s a while before we work out we’re supposed to be booing him.  Perhaps he needs to insult us all earlier in the script.

Anton is kept in check (just about) by his mother, the fabulous Sarah White as the elegant, wise-cracking Countess.  She is joined by another ex-Brookside regular, Neil Caple as Belle’s father in good form.  Callum Arnott is great fun as servant Ben, source of most of the show’s silliness, punctuating his punch lines with pelvic thrusts complete with comic sound effects.  Keeping the show firmly grounded in the realms of panto is director Joe Standerline who appears as Dame Dolly, a benevolent, fun-loving character with just enough sauce to keep the adults amused without descending into vulgarity.

The first half gets us through most of the plot.  The panto elements are blended in with the dramatic moments.  The second half sees both comedy and tragedy separated in alternate scenes, so we get a rowdy 12 Days of Christmas followed by a tender scene in which Belle begs her captor to allow her to visit her ailing father.  It’s a bit of a gear change but Standerline keeps both plates spinning, the panto and the drama, before bringing them together for the resolution.

It’s not the largest-scale production but in terms of professionalism, talent, and entertainment value it’s up there with the best.  The people of Runcorn are fortunate to have such a splendid venue in the middle of their little town and I hope they continue to support it long after pantomime season is over.

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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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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


Not Short on Fun

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS

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.

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