Tag Archives: pantomime

Peter Panto

THE PANTOMIME ADVENTURES OF PETER PAN

Regent Theatre, Stoke on Trent, Thursday 29th December, 2022

The title clearly states that this is not going to be the J.M. Barrie classic.  In fact, this is more of a sequel to the well-known story.  It begins with Tinkerbell, in the panto role of Good Fairy, welcoming Wendy Darling back to Neverland.  There is trouble afoot.  Something about supplies of pixie dust in short supply, blah blah.  Of course, the plot is not the main focus of pantomime.  The main focus of pantomime is fun, and this one has it in spades.

Appearing as Smee is local superstar and Regent favourite, Jonathan Wilkes who, let’s face it, is the one everyone comes to see.  Wilkes is the embodiment of pantomime: he sings, he dances, he can handle an audience and a comic monologue, and as director, he knows how every aspect of the show should work.  He has a cocky but not arrogant persona, a cheeky boyish charm that enables him to get away with the most bawdy lines.  Never mind Pan, he is the one who has never grown up and we all love him for it.

This year, Wilkes is hooked up with returning favourite Kai Owen as the nefarious pirate Captain, supposedly reformed having been poohed out by the crocodile.  The highlights of the show are their routines – some of them time-honoured and traditional, others fresh and new.  A scene where they drag up as mermaids is particularly hilarious, and as the run reaches its end, it’s obvious they are still very much enjoying themselves.

In the title role is a youthful and energetic Rory Sutherland, with all the right poses and heroic stances.  This Peter is an action hero as well as an adorable twink.  The plot means he is grounded until the pixie dust shortage is resolved, so when Sutherland finally takes to the air, we’re with him.

Amanda Coutts’s Tinkerbell is a gorblimey kind of fairy, bearing no ill-will or jealousy towards Hannah Everest’s confident and earnest Wendy Darling.  Both girls have powerful singing voices, and it’s great to see Wendy play an active role in the climactic defeat of Captain Hook.

The plot is new yet encompasses what we expect from both panto and Peter Pan.  The script by Alan McHugh and Jonathan Wilkes is riddled with jokes, some of them old, some of them new, and only a few of which never land.  There’s the almost obligatory Twelve Days of Christmas, which rapidly descends into chaos, the ancient ‘Who’s in the first house?” routine… Wilkes and Owen carry it all off with aplomb.  All right, so we don’t get out-and-out slapstick, but the element I miss the most is one of the most pivotal characters in the pantomime pantheon.  There is nothing like a dame.  For me, this is all that’s lacking from this ribald and rowdy, rollocking and riotous piece of theatre.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ and a half!

Hannah Everest, Jonathan Wilkes, Amanda Coutts, and Rory Sutherland (Photo: Claralou Photography)


Turn Again

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 20th December, 2022

After all these years, Hippodrome pantomime favourite Matt Slack finally lands a title role.  At last he is able to make a Dick of himself.  If you’ve seen him before you know exactly what you’re going to get, and Slack delivers exactly what they pay him for.  No one does what Matt Slack does better than Matt Slack, but there is a strong whiff of we’ve seen it all before.  To paraphrase a line from the pantomime, Turn again, turn again, Matt Slack’s doing his turn again. 

You can’t help but admire his energy, his skill set (his impressions are off the scale!) and his wit – he is co-credited as scriptwriter along with veteran panto scribe, Alan McHugh.  The script is aimed well above the heads of the youngest members of the audience; it’s quite the rudest panto I’ve seen this year, which is fun for the grown-ups who have forked out for the tickets. 

As ever at the Hippodrome, it’s a massive spectacle.  An early appearance of the Rat King is breath-taking.   Unfortunately, its dialogue is largely drowned out by the atmospheric music that underscores the scene.  Playing the Rat King’s human emissary, the Rat Man is housewives’ favourite, Marti Pellow, who certainly looks the part.  Elegantly costumed, he struts around, performing tuneful songs of his own composition, but he is largely separate from the action.  It’s like he’s in a different show.  The rest are in a panto while he’s doing his musical theatre thing.

There’s a song about panto and how great it is.  We don’t need to know we’re watching a panto.  They don’t need to tell us they’re in a panto.  Again, the show veers toward musical theatre, which ain’t panto.  There’s no slosh scene, no ‘It’s behind you’ moment, and audience participation is kept to a bare minimum.

Conventionally a dancer is cast as the Cat.  Interestingly, we get local character Doreen Tipton instead.  Doreen has a marvellous deadpan woe-is-me delivery, and it’s great to see her branching away from her usual mockery of people on benefits.  As the Spirit of the Bells, TV’s Dr Ranj prances and sparkles around, very much being himself and proving himself a good sport.  Ironically, he serves as ‘straight man’ to Matt Slack’s extended pun-filled stories.

Andrew Ryan is Felicity Fitzwarren, a garishly glamorous dame, who definitely needs her own moment in the show out from under the shadow of Slack’s spotlight, while former pop star Suzanne Shaw provides love interest as Alice Fitzwarren. Shaw is strangely underused, with no solo number nor even a duet with Slack.

The cast is supported by a hardworking ensemble of ten, and a seven-piece band, led by Robert Willis. It’s a great looking, great-sounding production, beautifully lit by Ben Cracknell, and there are laughs aplenty throughout. What the show gains in scale and splendour, it loses in heart. Slick and spectacular, it’s enjoyable to be sure, but I feel it lacks some of the elements of the very art form it extols in song.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

What a Dick! Matt Slack reigning supreme (Photo: Paul Coltas)


Merry (Christmas) Men

ROBIN HOOD

The Attic Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Friday 16th December, 2022

You might think the intimate performance space at Stratford’s Attic Theatre would be too restrictive to stage a pantomime.  Well, you’d be reckoning without the genius of Tread The Boards’ resident writer-director John Robert Partridge.  He puts the focus on his cast of six to deliver all the conventions of the art form, supported by the tech crew, and quite frankly, we are too busy laughing to miss grand-scale spectacular scenes which other, larger venues can accommodate.  Partridge frames the story how we would expect: a fairy in a pink spot, the villain in a green… but because it’s Robin Hood, we don’t know precisely what the plot will entail, unlike the more well-worn pantomimes, and this adds freshness to the production.

Opening the show and winning us over instantly is Florence Sherratt as fabulous Fairy Fabulous, friendly and funny, contrasting sharply with Joshua Chandos’s marvellously wicked Sheriff of Nottingham.   Chandos is darkly camp and never short of hilarious – and he has the best hair.

Emily Tietz’s Maid Marian is no shrinking violet, with her movie-star looks and a valiant spirit; while Dan Grooms’s Robin may be a long time coming but is definitely worth the wait.  For all his posing, posturing, and knee-slapping, it is Robin who must be rescued from the Sheriff’s clutches by Marian and the others.

Those others: Silly Willy – Dominic Selvey is a lovable buffoon with an indefatigable supply of quick-fire one-liners.  When he gets three volunteer children from the audience for a rendition of Music Man, he’s on a steep learning curve!   Playing Willy’s mother, Dame Tuck, is Pete Meredith, a consummate panto dame, cheeky bordering on bawdy, and sporting a range of eye-wateringly garish outfits as the show goes on.

The songs are mainly lifted from Disney, with a touch of ABBA; there’s a wonderful send-up of the Bryan Adams mega-hit, Everything I Do I Do For You, and an exciting climactic swordfight between Robin and the Sheriff while Dame Tuck belts out her best Bonnie Tyler.

Adam Clarke’s set design comprises a stylised forest backdrop complete with a real tree trunk, the branches of which stretch across the ceiling.  The set is rendered multi-purpose by Kat Murray’s lighting and the dialogue, proving you don’t need elaborate scenery to evoke location and atmosphere.

There’s plenty of audience participation.  This reviewer was picked on to be Dame Tuck’s ‘boyfriend’ and it could have been worse!  I think I got off lightly…

A riotous, fun-filled evening and an affordable seasonal treat.  As a measure of every panto, I glance around at the nearby children in the audience to see if they’re enthralled.  And tonight they’re lapping it up.

Magical.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Full of beans: Dominic Selvey gives us his Silly Willy, with Pete Meredith’s Dame Tuck behind

(Photo: Andrew Maguire Photography)


Wishing and Washing

ALADDIN

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Wednesday 14th December, 2022

Aladdin has always been a curious mix as a pantomime, based on a tale from the 1001 Arabian Nights, with a lot of Chinese reference points chucked in.  Writer-director Will Brenton overcomes the outdated stereotypes by translating the action from Old Peking to ‘Shangri-Fa’, located somewhere in The Mystical East.  Therefore, in terms of costumes and scenery, anything vaguely Asian goes!

And it’s a good-looking show, blending old-school scenic elements with a video cyclorama. 

The action kicks off with villainous Abanazar (Michael Greco off of EastEnders) revealing his dastardly plot.  He unleashes the Spirit of the Ring (Zoe Birkett) who, Magic Mirror-like, tells him the only person pure of heart in the vicinity happens to be the title character, who also happens to be something of a thief.  Or, as he would put it, a redistributor of wealth.  Greco is great, melodramatic and pompous, lacing the bombast with a wry sense of humour.  Birkett is fantastic, with a chirpy Northern charm and a singing voice to die for.  I’d be happy if the entire show morphed into a concert of hers, to be honest. Her ‘Defying Gravity’ while Aladdin soars on a magic carpet, is just wonderful.

In the title role, Ben Cajee is appealing but the characterisation is, ironically, wishy-washy.  Returning to the Grand for another go, this time to appear as Aladdin’s brother Wishee-Washee is the excellent Tam Ryan.  In fact, we have to wait for his first entrance to get the first joke of the night.  Also making a welcome return is Ian Adams as a long-suffering Widow Twankey.  Ryan and Adams, separately and together, are the comedic pulse of a production which is uneven in tone.

Instead of an emperor or sultan, Shangri-Fa is ruled by a twit of a bureaucrat, a bumbling Notary (Ian Billings) who is out to line his own pockets, believing billionaires to be better than the rest of us.  This change means his daughter, Jasmine (Sofie Anne) is denied her princess status, freeing her to share Aladdin’s social conscience.  It seems that pantomime is drawing lines in the sand this year.  Wealth should be for everyone and not just those at the top, Aladdin and Jasmine agree.  I welcome this refreshing change: panto has always been a popular art-form and has always satirised those in charge.  There seems to be a distinct move to speak up for the people this year.  Unfortunately, the Notary who has the power to say who may or may not get married, just fizzles out of the storyline and the thread is left unresolved.  Here is a character who needs to learn the error of his ways.  Also left hanging is Wishee-Washee’s attraction to Zoe Birkett.  It’s usual in panto for everyone to get a happy ending, but even Twankey doesn’t get a man.

There is much to enjoy, of course.  Duane Gooden’s big hearted (and big bellied) Genie, the hard-working ensemble of dancers, a slosh scene in the laundry… But for me, it doesn’t hang together as a coherent whole.

And there’s the rub.

☆ ☆ ☆ and a half

Bopping Beppe: Michael Greco making his di Marco as Abanazar (Photo: Alex Styles)


Disco Ball

CINDERELLA

Gatehouse Theatre, Stafford, Tuesday 13th December, 2022

As soon as Fairy Fleur (Harriet Thorpe from Ab Fab) opens the show with a flash and a puff of smoke, we know we are in safe hands.  Camp and cheerful, Thorpe takes charge and sets the tone for a hugely enjoyable evening.  And the producers get their money’s worth out of her, having her reappear in several guises throughout the story.

Aya Elmansouri’s Cinderella is feisty and exuberant, not the downtrodden figure we might expect.  Her singing voice is powerful and we take to her immediately.  In fact, it’s an instantly lovable cast; Ricky K’s Buttons is a cheeky clown, adept at physical comedy; Tom Vaughan’s Prince Louis is handsome and clean cut and clearly having fun; Allan Jay’s Dandini is camply Scottish, and a serious challenge to Vaughan for the best singing voice in the show.

The scene-stealing Ugly Sisters, wonderfully named Tess & Trace, are unstintingly hilarious.  Jason Sutton’s Trace is the more traditional panto dame while Will Peaco’s Tess is more of a modern drag queen.  The pair work wonderfully together.  Even their moments of cruelty bring laughter.

The traditional pantomime elements are here, executed perfectly.  A slosh scene involving Button and the Sisters and a tub of face cream is all the funnier for its simplicity.  And a Staffordshire Sasquatch provides the ‘It’s Behind You’ scene, including a chase around the auditorium. 

The stage at the Gatehouse may not be very deep but the production company makes the most of it.  Production values are high, and the horse-drawn carriage at the close of Act One is breath-taking —  I would advise a puff of dry ice to better conceal the apparatus.

The well-worn story is served well by an excellent script by Julie Coombe, crackling with jokes, many of them aimed at the adults in the audience. There are many topical references promoting a greener lifestyle without holding these ideas up to ridicule e.g. Cinders and the Prince first meet during a protest to save some trees, the palace only serves Vegan food… It’s good to be included without being the butt of a joke!

Connor Fogel single-handedly handles the music.  Most of the songs are disco classics, serving to give the show a certain unity of tone, with Rebecca Jeffrey’s energetic choreography being both retro and contemporary.

This is certainly a pantomime that gets everything right.  It’s perfect entertainment, enthralling for the children and hilarious for the grown-ups.

I had a ball.

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆


Snow White’s All Right

SNOW WHITE

Stafford Gatehouse Theatre, Thursday 30th December, 2021

As the pantomime season draws to a close, I am pleased to be able to fit one more in before the end of its run.  And what a cracker it turns out to be!

Headlining the cast as the Wicked Queen, Maureen Nolan is a striking, commanding figure, darkly glamourous, oozing evil and delivering some wicked one-liners.  Her big number, Alice Cooper’s Poison, as she cooks up the apple and her old woman disguise, is a definite highlight.  Nolan is still in great voice and the dancers, choreographed by Phillip Joel, add vigour and atmosphere to proceedings.

In the title role, Rebecca Keatley from Children’s television, makes for a vivacious, instantly likeable and upbeat leading lady, exuding friendliness.  She also reveals herself to be an excellent singer—this panto is riddled with well-known songs, from the charts and from West End shows.  Keatley’s vocals go extremely well with those of the mighty Keith Jack, in the role of the Prince.  Their duet is stunning.

Keith Jack is an ideal Prince, with his rugged good looks, soft Scottish burr and powerful singing voice.  As an extra treat, he gets his kit off (for plot reasons) and, in chains, belts out Close Every Door, because it would be a waste of one of the best Josephs in the business not to! 

Much of the comedy comes from Sean McKenzie’s naughty Dame Nellie Furlough, and Mike Newman as everybody’s friend, Muddles.  Together and separately, these two are easy to laugh at, and they work the crowd expertly.

The good fairy (Wendy Abrahams) gets plenty to do.  Being a stickler where panto is concerned, I am pleased to report she speaks in rhyming couplets.  Not only is she our narrator and the story’s supernatural influence, Fairy Wendy also forms a double act with Theo The Mouse, an incorrigible puppet who gets the younger members of the audience squealing with delight.

Appearing as Igor, the Queen’s henchman, is Wink Taylor, clearly enjoying himself in this larger-than-life character.  It turns out that Taylor also wrote the script.  Clearly he is someone who loves the traditional elements of pantomime as much as I do.  He gets the tone and balance exactly right.  The story is strong and every element exists to serve the plot.  Even the mischievous mouse puppet!  I suspect Taylor has a hand in that as well…

The show delivers enjoyment from curtain up to finale.  Act One closes with a rousing rendition of You Will Be Found from Dear Evan Hanson!  And it works superbly.  Moments of drama (e.g. Igor meeting Snow White in the forest to kill her!) are offset with silliness, and it all fits together wonderfully well.  Director Richard Cheshire ensures the pace never flags while giving scenes room to breathe.

Absent from the title are the seven dwarfs.  In the show they are referred to as ‘kind little men’ and they’re played by children in oversized cartoon heads, performing dumb-show to pre-recorded voices with a Dad’s Army theme, which is a clever idea but probably over the normal-sized heads of the kids in the audience.  Also, I think sometimes the kids in the big heads can’t see where they’re going, as the blocking of these scenes can suffer.  Given their limitations, it’s no wonder they are not given any fun stuff to do.

A traditional, well-made panto with most of the elements you could hope for (what, no slosh scene?). The Gatehouse has a hit on its hands, and its great to see this newly refurbished regional venue so well supported.  I’ll definitely be back next year to see if they can top this one.

☆☆☆☆

Sean McKenzie, Rebecca Keatley and Mike Newman

Return of the Slack

GOLDILOCKS AND THE THREE BEARS

Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 21st December, 2021

After two years, pantomime is back in Birmingham, with the Hippodrome pulling out all the stops as usual to provide the glitteriest, spangliest, sparkliest show imaginable.  The story of Goldilocks is well-known but too slight to fill a full-length show—the events of the tale are covered here in the time it takes to perform the Donna Summer classic, Hot Stuff!  The rest of the time is largely padding, hung loosely around a scrap of plot about rival circuses.  It is a variety show, when all’s said and done, yet the circus theme allows the inclusion of magicians, tightrope walkers, even stunt motorcycles in the ‘Globe of Speed’, performing feats even more death-defying than the audience members who are not wearing masks.

The show is packed with entertainment, but it takes a while to get going with not one, two, or three but FOUR opening numbers in a row.  Two of these should be cut.  The villain gets a song, setting out his stall, and that’s fair enough, but when the dame’s first appearance is a po-faced ballad about dreams and believing, you long for something funny to happen.

King of Birmingham panto, Matt Slack makes a welcome and overdue return, giving us exactly what we’ve come to expect and what he’s so good at.  He’s Ringo the Ringmaster (although it’s left to Goldilocks to introduce most of the acts!) but really he’s the clown.  His audience-handling is second-to-none, and his physical comedy is hilarious.  There is a sequence of impressions that impresses, and you can see why the Hippodrome gets him back year after year after year, because of the fun and the level of skill he brings.  Bring on next Christmas, when he’ll be giving us his Dick (Whittington, that is).

Top of the bill is superstar and heartthrob, Jason Donovan, making his panto debut as the villainous Count Ramsay of Erinsborough.  Donovan is deliciously evil in the role, dressed like the Child-Catcher, and he’s in great voice.  He proves himself a great sport and clearly has a strong rapport with Slack on and off-stage.  I can’t bring myself to boo him.

Also back is Doreen Tipton, appearing this time as a lazy lion tamer.  Doreen’s deadpan delivery is a hoot, and she has fun in spite of herself.  One of the best dames in the business, Andrew Ryan is Betty Barnum, in a range of outfits of increasing extravagance.  Ryan shines brightest in the comedy moments, displaying perfect timing.  It’s the earnest musical numbers that don’t seem to fit.  Even Be A Clown is a bit dour.

In the title role, Samantha Dorrance is a knockout as a sweet and perky Goldilocks.  The Three Bears I find a little disturbing, with their full-body costumes and human faces.  Considering the quality of the rest of the animals in the show (a marvellous gorilla, and an astonishing elephant…) and the sky-high production values of the rest of it, the Three Bears seem a little short-changed, but they’re performed with verve by Ewan Goddard, Georgia Anderson, and Jessica Daugirda, as Daddy, Mummy, and Baby Bear respectively.  There is also a star turn from Alexia McIntosh as Candy Floss, whose rich vocal stylings lift the musical numbers into something special.

The story, such as it is, is broken-up by circus acts.  Pierre Marchand amazes with his diabolo; The Gemini Sisters on their tightrope; and Phil Hitchcock as the Magical Mysterioso — all are gobsmackingly good, although in a piece that touches on cruelty to animals, I’m dismayed to see live birds used as props.

On the whole, the show provides welcome respite from the grimness of life in Britain at the moment.  There is much to marvel at and more to laugh at.  It’s a crowd-pleasing piece of fun brimming with sauciness and silliness.  You don’t need ten good reasons to see it—Jason Donovan is reason enough for me, and yes, it’s great to have Matt Slack back and at the top of his game.

★★★★

Matt Slack and Jason Donovan (Photo; Birmingham Hippodrome)

Prance Charming

CINDERELLA

Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, Tuesday 7th November, 2021

It’s great to be back at the beautiful Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton, after a year with no pantomime.  This year’s offering hits all the right notes, living up to our expectations of the famous story while delivering a few surprises along the way.

Writer-director Will Brenton tinkers with the conventional approach in a number of ways.  First up, the Wicked Sisters aren’t dames!  Gasp!  They’re two young ladies played by female actors!  Gasp!  While initially I feel cheated out of a couple of drag queens, this spoilt rotten pair soon win me over.  As Tess and Claudia (there’s a Strictly theme here) Ella Biddlecombe and Britt Lenting make a strong impression.  Their nastiness is purely on the inside.

Don’t worry, the show still has a dame, in the form of seasoned old pro Ian Adams, making a welcome return to the Grand as Penny Pockets, something of an extraneous character in terms of the plot, but a safe pair of hands if you’re looking for fun.

Brenton adds an evil stepmother to the mix, Baroness Hardup, played with relish by Julie Stark, who makes Cruella look like a pussycat.   She is an excellent contrast to Evie Pickerill’s appealing Cinderella, who is sweet and lively, but can also sing like an angel.  Every female performer in this show has a superb singing voice, it appears, none more so than the mighty Denise Pearson (of 5-Star fame) as the Fairy Godmother, sending shivers spinewards.  Pearson gets a few good numbers – a wise move!

Among the fellas, Tam Ryan’s Buttons has real star quality.  Despite the pangs of his unrequited love, Buttons brings the funny, and Ryan never flags for a second.

Topping the bill are the Pritchard brothers, AJ and Curtis.  Formerly a pro-dancer on Strictly, AJ is, of course, Prince Charming, twirling, prancing and sparkling around, as handsome as a Disney Prince action figure.  The choreography by Racky Plews plays to AJ’s strengths, affording him plenty of opportunities to show what he can do, and he is, it has to be said, a lovely little mover.  Curtis, as Dandini, perhaps has more to prove, and he does it, and then some!  He is an accomplished dancer too, can sing well and even juggle, in a winning performance that cements his reputation as a star in his own right.

On the whole, Brenton’s changes work.  Importantly, he preserves the key moments and executes them very well: The breaking of Buttons’s heart, for example, and arguably the cruellest scene in all panto, the tearing up of Cinderella’s invitation to the ball.  Mark Walters’s set comprises video images as a changing backdrop, which are all very well, but I miss the old-school gauzes and cloths flying in and out.  The videos are too slick, robbing the show of some of its traditional theatricality.

There is much to enjoy here, well-worn routines, groanworthy gags, and plenty of audience participation—from a COVID-safe distance, of course.  It all adds up to a grand night out with something for all the family.  AJ dancing and Denise Pearson singing?  There’s your money’s worth right there.

☆☆☆☆

AJ Pritchard as Prince Charming, with Curtis Pritchard as Dandini (Photo: Tim Thursfield)

Beautifully Beastly

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 26th November 2021

Forget the Coca-Cola trucks!  You know when Christmas is definitely coming when the Belgrade opens its pantomime.

Back again for the umpteenth year are writer-director-dame Iain Lauchlan and his partner in crime, Craig Hollingsworth.  Separately and as a double act, these two embody the spirit of panto in Coventry, and it’s an absolute treat to see them back live on stage.

Appearing as Dame Dolly Mixture, Lauchlan is tirelessly funny, sporting a range of outfits based on sweets and chocolates, each one a delightful confection.  Lauchlan’s dame always has a twinkle in her eye and something saucy to say.  Paired with Hollingsworth’s Silly Billy, this is a dream team, bringing all the well-worn, well-loved and well funny panto elements to the stage, including a mandatory slosh scene involving mops, and the traditional word play, audience engagement…Lauclan’s script fizzles with jokes old and new.  Clearly, Hollingsworth is in his element, getting annoyed with the audience and complaining about being made to look silly.  A fast-paced song about alternative career paths for the cast is an hilarious highlight.

Another joy to watch is Peter Watts as bombastic narcissist Maurice, in a larger-than-life performance that comes close to stealing the show.  He is teamed with sidekick Grub, played by the excellent Miriam Grace Edwards—it’s great to see her return to the Belgrade stage.

Katy Anna Southgate’s Enchantress is a striking figure in a beautiful purple gown; it’s a pity we don’t get to hear her sing until the finale.

The panto fun is interspersed with the darker plot line of the fairy tale.  It begins with a Prince (Samuel Lake) being beastly to a peasant (Louie Wood).  As punishment for his lack of compassion, the Enchantress turns the Prince into a hideous beast for five hundred years.  The Beast is played with gusto by Sion Lloyd, whose scary speaking voice is offset by his beautiful, powerful singing.  Ruby Eva’s Beauty is as pretty and sweet as you’d expect, while David Gilbrook as her bewildered father Harold dodders around endearingly.  But, let’s face it, you don’t go to the panto for the plot!  The tonal gear change between anarchic silliness and emotional drama is sometimes too sharp.  It’s almost as though we’re switching between two different shows. 

Somehow, Lauchlan manages to marry all the elements to bring the story to its happy ending, complete with a rousing rendition of S Club 7’s Reach For The Stars, which you’ll be singing all the way home.

On the whole, it’s a joyous experience and production values are high, courtesy of the Belgrade’s in-house workshop, from the glow-in-the-dark dancing skeletons to the lavish costumes and fairytale scenery.

A feast of festive family fun.

☆☆☆☆

Caning it: Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth (Photo: Nicola Young)

Stream Scream

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK Online

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1st-31st December 2020

The annual treat of the Belgrade pantomime is not cancelled, thank goodness, but is available to stream from the theatre’s website into the comfort (or otherwise) of your own home.  Panto without audience participation might seem like the odds are stacked against it, but such is the effectiveness of this specially filmed production, you barely miss the auditorium.

The mighty Iain Lauchlan has been the engine, the heart and the soul of the Belgrade’s panto for over a quarter of a century now, and the film begins with him strolling onto a bare stage and gazing out at the empty stalls.  Voices and laughter from previous productions can be heard.  It’s quite a downbeat start, reflecting the sadness the entire industry must be feeling this year, but the mood instantly picks up when he sits on the edge of the stage alongside his longtime comedy partner, Craig Hollingsworth, who has an idea of how the pantomime can still go ahead this year: stream it online.  At once, you can see the chemistry between these two; their partnership is the biggest draw for me to keep going to Coventry every year.  Their effortless banter and crosstalk is second-to-none.

And so the panto proper begins, with Lauchlan as the Fairy narrator, able to use her wand for digital effects you can’t get in the theatre.   The set and costumes are very much what you’d expect to find on stage but crucially the performance style has been altered to suit the screen.  The acting is still non-naturalistic, but its heightened just enough to maximise the comedy without going over the top.  Addressing the audience is replaced by direct-to-camera and this works brilliantly for Dame Trott’s monologues (Iain Lauchlan is the consummate dame) and also for quick asides and punchlines.  Craig Hollingsworth, usually called upon to be a master of crowd control, here demonstrates another impressive set of skills, those of acting for and to the lens.  I did not think these two could get any higher in my estimation, but they’ve done exactly that.

With Lauchlan and Hollingsworth playing most of the parts (due to the necessity of having limited numbers permitted in rehearsals) this is a real showcase for their talents.  They are joined by perky principal boy, Morna Macpherson as Jack Trott, with Arina Li as the feisty Princess.  Trish Adudu is somewhat underused as the Giant’s wife, appearing in a Zoom call with Hollingsworth’s Fleshcreep (who reminds me of Dave Hill from Slade!)   The troupe of young dancers is led by the dashing Ayden Morgan, adding to the vibrancy of this colourful and inventive production.

Lauchlan’s script is bang up-to-date, riddled with topical references, as befits any panto worth its salt.  He has always been an innovative panto creator and this year, more than ever, his ability to marry traditional tropes with technical advancements is crucial.  Everything is so well thought out.  Even Daisy the cow’s costume has been amended to include social distancing for her front and back legs!  There is plenty of slapstick and silliness, along with saucier jokes for the adults, and it’s all splendidly directed (by Paul Gibson) to suit the medium.

This is by no means a question of performing a panto and standing a camera in front of it.  This is a true marriage of form and content, of timeless tradition and contemporary communications.

It’s available to stream for the whole month of December from belgrade.co.uk so people far beyond the bounds of Coventry can get to see it, and it’s excellent value and an absolute scream.  Oh yes it is.

*****

Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth face off with a bake-off (Photo: Chloe Ely)