Tag Archives: pantomime

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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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.


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.

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