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.