Tag Archives: pantomime

Magic and Mess make for success

CINDERELLA

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 1st December, 2017

 

Writer, director and jovial genius Iain Lauchlan is back at the Belgrade for another triumphant year with a winning pantomime that blends traditional with new elements.

Oddly, it gets off to something of an underwhelming start, with Fairy Godmother (Maggie Robson) springing on and giving us some sub-Disney waffle about dreams.  What, no rhyming couplets?  She introduces us to our heroine straight away – a winsome Alice Rose Fletcher, looking every inch the part and with a sweet singing voice.  This is a Cinderella we can take to right away, but her song is somewhat wistful and reflective, and not really an opening number.  Energy levels crank up when the chorus of villagers pour on – and we’re off at last!

The ugly sisters, Dyspepsia (Lauchlan in his element, it appears) and Listeria ( an equally excellent Greg Powrie) are a superb double act.  Ostensibly the villains, they are too enjoyable to be bad.  The crux of villainy in this version is found in Cinderella’s stepmother (Maggie Robson, doubling, and having more to get her teeth into), a delightful snarling diva.

Adding to the fun – shovelling it on – is Craig Hollingsworth as Buttons.  A natural crowd-pleaser, Hollingsworth is a cheeky chappie, a quick wit with impeccable timing.  His scenes with the sisters are the comic highlights of the show.  An extended slosh scene involving waxing strips and fake tanning equipment is relentlessly funny in an old-school way.  Slapstick still works.

An iconic scene we don’t get is Buttons trying to cheer up Cinderella when she can’t go to the ball.  Cut because of running times, I suspect, but Hollingsworth gives us hints of the pathos that is an essential part of the Buttons character.

In this performance, a charming Vicky Field plays Prince Charming – Lauchlan gives us two principal boys to balance the two dames – and Letitia Hector gives us an elegant and full-throated Dandini.  In panto, no one bats an eyelid about cross-dressing and gender and blind casting.  Everyone is accepted.  Any joshing is good-natured.

From the chorus there is strong support from Lashane Williams and Vicki Stevenson in several featured moments, but undoubtedly this is the Ugly Sisters & Buttons show, and we don’t mind that at all.

There are moments of wonder – the transformation scene is straightforward in its execution but still works its magic on the children – plenty of audience participation, with some individuals being ‘volunteered’ to prove themselves good sports – and the time-honoured story still comes through.  There is something about Cinderella that strikes a chord with everyone: the worthy underdog whisked away from servitude; but it’s more than a lottery win.  Cinderella’s generosity of spirit is what sees her through.

One final point: I look around the stalls and from what I can see, the people of Coventry have turned out from all corners.  It’s quite simply the most diverse audience I’ve seen at a pantomime.  And everyone’s enjoying this peculiarly British tradition and having a great night at the theatre, and I think this is the kind of Britain I want to live in.  Inclusive, good-natured and friendly.  Well done, the Belgrade!

Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth in Cinderella - Credit Robert Day (2)

Greg Powrie, Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth messing about (Photo: Robert Day)

 

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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

 

 


What a Dick!

DICK WHITTINGTON

Birmingham Hippodrome, Wednesday 21st December, 2016

 

The Hippodrome’s pantomime is invariably the biggest and boldest and this year marks the triumphant return of John Barrowman to the theatre after an absence of eight years.  And it was certainly worth the wait.  Barrowman is the consummate entertainer, singing, dancing, joking, working the crowd, all with his trademark boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Star quality is written all over him – and with such a big star, the production values rise to meet him.  From start to finish, the extravagant staging, with many a Wow moment, impresses your socks off, including the now-obligatory 3D sequence.

It begins with EastEnders’ Steve McFadden as King Rat – we quickly learn even he is not the biggest rat in London.  McFadden clearly enjoys himself playing the villain and he handles King Rat’s doggerel verse with aplomb.  He also shows himself to be a good sport, as straight man to Idle Jack’s mockery.  Idle Jack is played by Hippodrome panto favourite Matt Slack (he’s already booked to play Buttons next year!) and the warm welcome he receives when he first appears almost takes the roof off.   Slack is a talented clown and mimic, relentlessly funny and highly skilled.

Andrew Ryan returns to play the dame, Sarah the Cook, delivering the goods – I feel he could be given more – a slapstick or ‘slosh’ scene, which is the only sixpence missing from this Christmas pudding.

Much laughter is to be had because of veteran double-act the Krankies, whose humour and routines slot right into the panto format.  The act still works and their adlibs are sharp and hilarious.  It’s only disturbing if you think about it…

Jodie Prenger makes a sprightly Fairy Bow Bells – her voice blending sweetly with Barrowman’s for a duet.  Danielle Hope is a charming Alice and Kage Douglas’s good-looking Sultan is a pleasant surprise.  Taofique Folarin’s Brummie Cat is also a treat – again, I would like to see him being given more to do.

The cast is supported by a tireless company of dancers (choreographed by Alan Harding) and a hard-working band under the baton of Robert Willis.  Ben Cracknell’s lighting enhances the special effects (courtesy of The Twins FX) while remaining in keeping with traditional panto conventions.

There’s more of an adult tinge to the humour than other shows in the region, making this a panto that caters to all tastes.  All in all, this Dick is a breath-taking spectacle to make you laugh-out-loud and ooh and aah.  Once again, the Hippodrome pulls out all the stops and provides a highlight of the season.

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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 Leads The Way

DICK WHITTINGTON

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 25th November, 2016

 

My first Christmas show of the season and it’s a cracker!  The Belgrade may not hire the ‘big’ names on the panto circuit but this is more than compensated for by a traditional show performed by consummate professionals who actually have the necessary skills.

I am pleased to see a revival of the tradition of the principal boy.  Tricia Adele-Turner is a good-natured, honest and upright Dick.  Pantomime, it turns out, was ahead of the game when it comes to gender-blind casting.  Dick’s faithful companion, Tommy the Cat, is the acrobatic and flexible Becky Stone, who manages to inject her singe-word vocabulary with a wide range of expression!  Kelly Agredo is a charming love interest as Alice Fitzwarren, while Declan Wilson offers sterling support as her father Alderman Fitzwarren.  Wilson also appears as the Sultan of Morocco, here more of a Ben Gunn figure in an amusing cameo.  Anna Mitcham is a spirited Fairy Bow Bells, spouting Cockney rhyming slang like a U certificate Danny Dyer.

The driving energy of the show comes from writer/director Iain Lauchlan who also appears as the dame, Sarah the Cook.  Teamed up with Craig Hollingsworth’s Idle Jack, the pair are a force to be reckoned with, handling the audience with apparent ease.  One man is brought onto the stage several times for ritual humiliation – and the rest of us sit back in relief to enjoy his discomfort, except it’s all so good-natured and kind, it is nothing but fun.   This is a panto with a big, generous heart – Lauchlan’s heart, it must be.  He is canny enough to include the traditional elements we expect to see but, as the use of the audience member illustrates, is able to make those traditions fresh.

Whether onstage together or alone, Lauchlan and Hollingsworth exude joy and benevolence.  In total contrast is Melone M’Kenzy as the formidable and imposing Queen Rat.  For me this is the star performance of the show, a villain who is actually villainous.  She is a sassy supermodel, dressed for Halloween and has a rich singing voice that is to die for.  Queen Rat’s henchmen Scratch and Sniff (Matthew Brock and Eden Dominique) are also great value – Lauchlan wisely gives them plenty to do.

The songs are original – I usually prefer pantos to have well-known pop hits and standards – but in this instance, Liz Kitchen’s compositions are great, especially those performed by M’Kenzy.

Mark Walters’s costumes are a visual treat – naturally (if that’s the right word) Sarah the Cook’s outfits are the eyepopping best.  Production values in general are of a high quality and, given the nature of the script and its handling by one of pantomime’s most skilled proponents, pantomime in Coventry is in very safe hands indeed.

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Rat pack: Matthew Brock, Melone M’Kenzy and Eden Dominique (Photo: Robert Day)


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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An Aladdin’s Cave

ALADDIN

Derby Arena, Tuesday 8th December, 2015

 

All credit to Derby Council for persisting with the wish to stage a pantomime even though the usual venue, the Assembly Rooms, is out of action. Every effort has been made to transform the arena, a velodrome of all places, into a kind of pop-up theatre. It exceeds expectations. Yes, there is still the feel of being at a rock concert about it but both the staging and the content are traditional.  It’s a bit of a cavern but it’s full of treasures. We get everything we expect from a panto.

Hunky TOWIE star Dan Osborne pulls out the big guns as the Genie of the Lamp – he doesn’t have much to do in the first act but goes along gamely in the second, keeping the who-what-I-don’t-know patter going while other more seasoned performers are corpsing beside him. Michael McKell is a commandingly villainous Abanazar with a short fuse and a strong singing voice, while Leon Craig’s Widow Twankey is a delightfully domineering dame. The teasing of a member of the audience treads the thin line between banter and bullying – Mike McClean’s irritable Wishee Washee is also guilty of this. The villain may insult us so that we will boo him and oppose his plans; other characters may be cheeky and take the mick, but there’s an acerbic note to some of the remarks here that I didn’t care for. That said, McClean is clearly a skilled panto performer, aimed squarely at the adults present. The script by Keith and Ben Simmons has plenty of innuendo to keep the grown-ups laughing and tons of fun to keep the kids enthralled.

In the title role, pop star Ritchie Neville makes an energetic and amiable principal boy, throwing himself into the action. His duet with beautiful Princess Jasmine (an appealing Jade Chaston) James Bay’s Hold Back the River is the musical highlight of the night. Natasha Hamilton impresses as the Slave of the Ring – it’s a shame we have to wait so long before she gets to sing.   As the Chinese Policemen, Ping and Pong, Joseph Elliott and Richard David-Caine bring silliness and slapstick – Yes, I did say Chinese. Even though the story is lifted from the Arabian Nights, the panto tradition is to give the setting a Chinese aesthetic. My political correctness twitches every time, but that’s my problem.   The Emperor Chop Suey (Howard Ellis) tends to punctuate his proclamations with martial arts moves and kung fu cries, but that’s about as dodgy as it gets.   Ellis redeems himself with a rendition of Nessun Dorma in the wedding scene.

This traditional show in an unconventional venue is a wish come true for pantomime fans. There is plenty of colour, energy and a bit too much smoke, and it’s pleasing to see both form and content being adhered to: the rhyming couplets, the well-worn routines, the spectacle (the flying carpet) carried off by a strong ensemble, going all-out to make the show work in untraditional circumstances.

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