Every year Mrs Chrisparkle and I take Lady Duncansby and her butler, Sir William, for a panto and musical weekend in Sheffield. We stay overnight (usually at the Mercure, if their rates are reasonable), do lunch, do dinner, do drinkies, star-watch in the Crucible Corner after the evening show then end up in the Mercure bar until the wee small hours. It’s a splendid tradition and we love it.
We discovered the Sheffield Lyceum panto five years ago and wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s unlike any other panto I know, primarily because it always stars Damian Williams as the dame, and you can’t get a more perfect casting anywhere. He does have a tendency to dominate the show, but that’s part of the fun. The Lyceum panto always books up early in the year, and the audience is always filled with children transfixed with glee in a way you rarely see.
There are some staples from previous pantos that always get a re-run. It wouldn’t be a Lyceum panto without the Lyceum bench, featuring, in this show, Widow Twankey, Wishee Washee and PC Pongo, sitting on it to sing a super fast version of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, whilst Egyptian mummies steal in behind them, so that we can all shout out “they’re behind you!” “What? A mummy? Is there? Well, we’ll have to do it again then won’t we!” It’s a script we all know and love and the audience plays along in full voice. It wouldn’t be a Lyceum panto without a patter gag sketch – in the past we’ve seen them do puns on singers and groups, and perfumes and aftershaves – this year it was about newspapers and magazines, very cleverly weaving publication names into a running gag which, amongst other things, gave Twankey plenty of opportunity to tease Wishee about his Gay Times.
I don’t think we got an Oh no it isn’t, oh yes it is sequence this year; but we did get Twankey, Wishee and Pongo doing the Twelve Days of Christmas, where of course the stage gets messier and messier as Pongo is subjected to (at least) 60 accurately-chucked custard pies. This year, on the twelfth day of Christmas my true love gave to me twelve super soakers. How thoughtful of my true love. Absolutely no one in the stalls was safe. We were in the middle of Row P – you would have thought that was far enough away from the stage to stay dry. Not a bit of it. Wishee hurtled up the right aisle splashing and soaking as he went and we all copped a complete faceful of water. Several times. Fortunately, it was very funny. I’m not known for my sense of humour when it comes to being soaked; but, through the sheer cheekiness of the performers and the resigned knowledge that we were sitting ducks, it really worked.
The main supporting cast brought with them some more running gags simply by virtue of who they were or who they were playing. Chris Gascoyne – better known for playing Peter Barlow in Coronation Street, apparently, we don’t watch it – played a hammy wannabe Shakespearian actor type of Abanazar, whose seriousness and pomposity was permanently punctured by everyone opening every conversation with him with a surprised “hello, Peter!” much to his fury. A simple device, but very funny. Hilary O’Neil (excellent in Jack and the Beanstalk in Northampton a few years ago) played the Spirit of the Ring, marking each entry with yet another very funny impersonation, so that you never quite knew who she would come on as next. Alex Winters (a CBeebies presenter not known to us!) played Wishee Washee with enthusiasm but primarily acting as “friend to the children in the audience” and straight man to Damian Williams. Eddie Elliott played the Genie as an over-the-top wise-cracking dude straight out of some American reality show – and very funny he was too. Among the rest of the cast, Jonathan Halliwell was a youthful and exuberant Aladdin, and James Mitchell a much put-upon and long-suffering Pongo. But all the cast gave great support with their singing and dancing.
However, there is a however. For some reason, that I’ve not been able to fathom, this wasn’t quite as enjoyable as previous Lyceum pantomimes. It may be that the script was not quite as funny as usual; it may be that some of the characterisation wasn’t quite as spot-on as on previous occasions. It may be (I really hope not) that we have got a little tired of the formula. Mrs C even nodded off on a couple of occasions – that really shouldn’t happen in a pantomime, it should be far too engaging and noisy for that. I think overall it just lacked a little finesse. A good example of this came at the end with the curtain calls. Mr Williams was left till last, which is fine because he is the star and we do like to give him a good round of applause – and he came to the stage, descending from the Gods on Aladdin’s magic carpet. Great idea; trouble is, when he landed at the end, there was nothing for him to do but to get slowly unharnessed by stagehands and then just nip round the back, as the curtain had already come down on the rest of the cast. What should have been a grand entrance became a graceless one.
However, don’t let this put you off booking for Snow White next Christmas – we’ll still be booking for it!
Production photos by Robert Day.