Well this was the panto with the starriest cast of all this year. Joan Collins, Julian Clary, Nigel Havers fresh out of the jungle, Keith Harris and Orville – yes indeed! Still treading the boards and the duck still can’t fly.
And then the stirring unquiet on the internet that Joan Collins wasn’t appearing in many of the performances because she was suffering from flu. Well there’s a lot of it about. And I’m sure she would have had a flu jab. Still, even if she was just doing her best to appear it would have been a good thing.
Alas no. When we arrived for the matinee last Thursday there were no notices up saying “the management regrets” or inserts in the programme that read “Miss Collins role will now be played by…” So we thought we were on to a winner. But as the lights came down, the first person on the stage was the Company Manager, regretting that a significant person in their company was unable to perform. A huge wave of misery passed through the auditorium. Stoically we applauded the fact that a local lad would be playing her part. (Yes, lad, not lady).
But you can never book a show on the strength that a certain member of the cast will definitely appear. It’s one of the rules of theatregoing. The whole cast could be off with rabies and they could bring in residents from the nearby old peoples home to read the script, it’s allowed. Even when the theatre has trumpeted the appearance of Miss Collins since the early part of last year. The show must go on, not the star.
So you can sense my disappointment.
This is a majorly terrific panto, with some of the funniest and liveliest panto performances you are ever likely to witness. Let’s start at the top. Julian Clary is the Spirit of the Bells – a male fairy. No sniggers, please, or rather, loads of sniggers. Whenever he appears he lights up the stage and there is an incredible comfort to his interaction with the audience. You can just trust him to say the right thing at the right time. And his singing…. I wonder what Lee Marvin would have made of it. And his interaction with Orville… lying in bed with the duck, and just saying “tempted…” really funny stuff. I won’t tell you any more of his lines because the show’s still on for another month.
Nigel Havers is King Rat, and a dashed fine attempt he makes at it too. Lots of current references, particularly to his time in the jungle – if you didn’t see him in “I’m a Celebrity…” you’ll miss a lot of the jokes. Now if he had been appearing with Joan Collins I can imagine the sparkiness between the two of them would be great. However we saw Wayne Fitzsimmons – usually one of the dancers – appearing as Queen Rat. It was a performance full of venom but without much subtlety or comic timing; still, he remembered all his lines and kept the show going.
And yes, Keith Harris and Orville, and Cuddles, is back. You have to say about him – what a trouper. Like Julian Clary, his interaction with the audience is brilliant, his routines are funny and you should have seen and heard the way the kids were laughing. Full blown, uncontrollable, bottom of the heart laughter. An excellent performance.
Liam Tamne and Kathryn Rooney as Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren also performed their socks off. Very likeable personalities, sang and danced extremely well, but also with good comedy skills, usually at the mercy of Mr Clary. I wasn’t quite so sure about Jeffrey Holland as the Dame, I think the part was somewhat underwritten and his costumes weren’t really over-the-top enough. Probably too much to compete with the Spirit of the Bells, but it did come over a little underwhelming as a result.
Adding in an athletically appealing pantomime cat and a Sultan of Morocco who provides (in the words of John Barrowman in a Birmingham panto a few years ago “something for everyone”), and you have a really super show. I wouldn’t worry too much if Joan Collins is off sick the day you go – you’ll have a great time.