Where do the years go? This was our fifth annual trip to Sheffield for a theatrical weekend over the Christmas period where we take in the Lyceum panto and the big show at the Crucible. Christmas really wouldn’t be Christmas without it. It’s a family occasion, so we brought Lady Duncansby and her butler William along for the ride.
The beautiful Lyceum theatre is looking even more spick and span since the last time we visited it, and is a credit to its city and local theatre trust. That whole theatre square, with the Crucible as well as the Lyceum, plus the Crucible Corner bar where you can mingle with the stars late into the night (as we did later on) always makes me feel as though I’m coming home, even though I’ve never lived in Sheffield. In fact my only connection with the place was, at the age of 19, going to a friend’s house in Hillsborough for dinner, only she didn’t realise you couldn’t cook a frozen chicken from scratch. After a long time of thawing it in sinks full of hot water, it was finally ready to eat at 3am. Not sure how I survived the experience.
Back to 2015, and after a tasty light lunch at the Museum (which is a pub, not a museum), it was time for Dick Whittington. Ever since she knew which panto we were going to see, Lady Duncansby’s not let up with her favourite line “half past seven and still no sign of Dick” (or variations on that theme). Who said panto is for kids? I guess someone must have, as there were plenty of them in the audience, but strangely, our row was almost entirely populated with Adults Who Should Know Better. At least we resisted the temptation to buy flashing wands and princess dresses.
As ever, the star of the show was Damian Williams – one wants to call him “Sheffield’s own” but he actually lives in Tilbury. This year he played Dolly the Cook. He really understands the over-the-top spirit of the pantomime dame – gutsy, inelegant, boisterous; breaking that fourth wall like there’s no tomorrow. In all my years of theatre going and seeing pantomime dames the only one I can recall who came even close to Mr Williams for rumbustiousness was Terry Scott. Mr Williams knows that he looks like a fool, and plays up to it massively. During the course of this show he had all sorts of outré outfits, including being dressed as an East Midlands Train (and saying “East Midlands Train” as often has he could, which was pretty often – kerching!) But his most memorable costume this year, for all the wrong reasons, was his skimpy bikini, a hilariously inappropriate feat of engineering created by Helga Wood.
All the usual scenes were there, including the patter running gag between Mr Williams and Andy Day as Captain Crabstick (cue for a pirate’s “Harr, harr” every time he appears), where they named as many towns and villages in the Sheffield area that they could in five minutes whilst holding up the appropriate road sign (that scene was a particular favourite of the chap who checked us in at the hotel later on). And it wouldn’t be a Sheffield panto without the world famous Lyceum bench scene that this time featured gorillas sneaking up behind the cast. We’ll have to do it again, then, won’t we!
A highlight this year was a particularly splendid villain in the form of John Barr as King Rat, a star struck scoundrel who peppers his wicked attempts to send a plague of rats to blight the kingdom with songs from the shows, much to the delighted booing of the entire theatre. Mr Barr ends the first half performing from one of the boxes, which meant that when we pottered out during the interval to retrieve our half-time bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, we, and a family full of little kids, bumped into him in the foyer. “BOOOOOO!!!!” the children all screamed at him. “But I’m really very nice” he mildly protested with a knowing glint in his eye. That’s the magic of theatre.
This year’s fairy was played by Samantha Womack, fresh from her tricky will she-won’t she die Eastenders Christmas special (or so I understand – Mrs Chrisparkle and I see far too much live stuff to have time for soaps). With a name like Fairy Bow-Bells, I was rather expecting a cor blimey sort of wood-nymph, all apples and pears and how’s your father; but in fact she was a rather prim and proper fairy, with nothing very Laandaan about her at all. To be honest we didn’t care much for her material where her rhymes didn’t rhyme because of north/south accents – when she turned on the northern accent to make the rhyme work it sounded patronising to me. Still what do I know? Reading through her bio in the programme, I’m always disappointed when someone airbrushes out of history the fact that they appeared in the Eurovision Song Contest. Representing your country not worthy of a mention, Samantha? We don’t forget your 1991 10th place with A Message To Your Heart that easily, Miss Janus. However, I was delighted to see one of my favourite actresses, Gemma Sutton, as Alice Fitzwarren, having seen her in the last twelve months in Chicago, Drunk, and Gypsy. I’m really not stalking her, honest. She played a very earnest Alice, but not without a twinkle of mischief, and of course she has a great singing voice. She and Jo Parsons (Dick Whittington) made a cute couple and will have beautiful babies together.
The rest of the cast are all excellent, with an entertaingly bumbling Alderman Fitzwarren played by Patrick Clancy, a neatly feline Tommy the Cat played by Craig Garner (whose meow, meow, meow, meow, meow’s were enunciated beautifully), an imposingly hunky Sultan in the form of Tramaine Wright and with lots of enjoyable singing and dancing from the ensemble. I’m not sure which team of kids we saw, but they were great – and the girls making Mr Williams work hard for his living in the sweetshop scene were really funny. As you might expect, given its popularity, this year there were a number of Frozen references – I’ve not seen it but I gather they were quite clever. There was a brilliant “dick” line – see Lady Duncansby’s penchant in paragraph 3 – but sadly I can’t quite bring it to mind. I did, however, like Dolly’s East Midlands Train (kerching) comment – “all aboard, Deauville for the Continent, Skegness for the Incontinent”; and any panto that makes a reference to Tinder can’t be all bad (“We met using an online dating site. Tinder? No Tesco. I got a bag for life”.
Next year Mr Williams is back – yet again – in Aladdin. These Sheffield pantomimes are consistently brilliant. Can’t wait!