Tag Archives: pantomime

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.

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Floppy Dick

DICK WHITTINGTON

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On the Up

JACK AND THE BEANSTALK

Hippodrome, Birmingham, Monday 22nd December, 2014

 

You can rely on the Hippodrome pantomime for spectacle – that’s a given – but what this year’s festive production has that some of the more recent offerings have lacked is a strong storyline, the tree on which to hang the glittering baubles.   This year we are firmly back in trad panto territory as opposed to the variety-show-in-fairytale-clothing of last year’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or, before that, Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates.

It’s not just the plot that is familiar and I have to remember that for many members of the audience it is the first time they are encountering these well-worn, tried and tested routines. Much is repeated from last year – with a couple of prominent cast members playing a return engagement, this is to be expected, but know what? Even the oldest, corniest moments still have the power to charm when executed by skilled hands such as these.  The humour is puerile and lavatorial: bum, poo, fart, willy… I laughed a lot.

The irrepressible Matt Slack (imagine a bald Brian Conley) is back as the titular Jack’s silly-billy brother. Slack is a natural for pantomime and a sublime physical comedian. Jack also has another, perhaps unnecessary brother, Simple Simon – ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, also back for a second year. Not so much a double act as an alternating pair of entertainers, these two provide much of the comic thrust of the evening. Zerdin performs the “Who’s in the first house?” routine superbly – by himself!

Also back is Gary Wilmot, a consummate panto dame. Wilmot doesn’t exaggerate or caricature, making his Dame Trot a likeable, cheeky character rather than a grotesque.

Duncan James proves a good sport as our dashing hero Jack, finally succumbing to our exhortations to take his shirt off. He and Princess Apricot (a sweet Robyn Mellor) belt out a bit of an aimless ballad together – their voices deserve better. Not that it matters: their number is sabotaged by Matt Slack doing something remarkable with a large red balloon.

In fact, probably the only criticism I’d level is where some of the song choices are concerned. Evil Fleshcreep opens the second act with an instantly forgettable song – Chris Gascoyne (Peter Barlow off of Corrie) is clearly enjoying himself as the Giant’s henchman but there must be better songs out there.

Enchantress Jane McDonald gives a rousing rendition of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough as Jack scales the beanstalk – it suits her vocal stylings better than the pompous stuff she is given earlier on. With her Northern camp, she fits in with the comedians – it’s still early in the show’s long run (“We’re here until Easter,” jokes Slack) so the comic timing is a little loose in parts. I expect this will tighten up with every performance.

There is plenty to enjoy. A prolonged 3D sequence is scary, in a funfair kind of way, and the Giant appears in an animated version and ‘live’ on stage. A pantomime cow does a moonwalk.  The obligatory 12 Days of Christmas routine is cleverly undermined in a kind of Play That Goes Wrong way and, almost literally, brings the house down.   Again I have to bear in mind that normal people don’t go to see several pantomimes in the same season, as we clap along to yet another rendition of Pharrell Williams’s Happy

It’s great to see the Hippodrome panto back on track, letting the form and not the stars shape the content.

jackand the beanstalk


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