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.
This is the first pantomime of the season for me and it’s a cracker. Belgrade stalwarts Iain Lauchlan and Craig Hollingsworth return for the umpteenth year on the trot for the rarely staged story of a crafty cat who helps his master to social climb his way to the palace, defeating a terrible ogre along the way. The pair work superbly as a double act, with Lauchlan as the dame, Matilda Pudding, and Hollingsworth as her son, Simon. They are also superb on their own, with Hollingsworth in particular working the audience. His persona is cheeky and easily annoyed; the comic timing is impeccable. Lauchlan gives a masterclass in panto-damery, with a succession of ridiculous outfits, charming humour and an irrepressible sense of fun. Lauchlan also writes and directs, and is clearly some kind of genius.
The Puddings: Matilda (Iain Lauchlan) and Simon (Craig Hollingsworth) Photo: Robert Day
The rest of the cast, for the most part, rise to the standard of the star pair, given the stock limitations of their roles. Aimee Bevan warms into her duties as our narrator Fairy Flutterby; David Gilbrook is suitably doddery as good King Colin; and Miriam Grace Edwards makes a gutsy Princess Sophia. As the villain, evil jester Victor Grabitt, Peter Watts is enormous fun, sinister, snide and camp in the melodramatic sense, he is a joy to watch.
The chorus is fleshed out with a troupe of local children, who tackle Jenny Phillips’s choreography with panache. Among the grown-up dancers, Dylan Jones distinguishes himself with some spectacular urban moves, as well as an engaging sense of humour. Daniel Teague appears as the Ogre, in a delightfully scary moment – this show has plenty to engage the children and get them shouting and pointing at the stage.
In the title role, Joanna Thorne is dashingly heroic with a lively touch of comedy. The role is a blend of principal boy and a skin part, but it also lets girls in the audience that females can be proactive. Thorne has a strong singing voice – it’s a shame we don’t get to hear more of it.
Lauchlan’s script successfully combines traditional routines with bang up-to-date new elements: we are invited to submit ogre-faced selfies to an Instagram account during the interval; Simon Pudding first appears via face-time… Lauchlan thereby upholds the audience expectations of the form, while keeping the form fresh and current, and of course there is plenty of saucy humour to keep the adults laughing.
Non-stop fun from start to finish, this is a refreshing change from the ‘big’ pantos that always do the rounds (the Aladdins, the Cinderellas, the Dicks) and a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit. As ever, it’s great to see such a diverse audience at the Belgrade, demonstrating that pantomime truly is for everyone and that theatre can bring us together.
Joanna Thorne as Puss in Boots and Peter Watts as Grabitt (Photo: Robert Day)