My first ever visit to a London theatre was to the Palladium for a pantomime back in January 1969 when I was a very small wee urchin. It was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Jimmy Tarbuck and Arthur Askey and I adored it. I don’t know why I missed out in 1970, but in February 1971 I saw my next Palladium panto, Aladdin, starring Cilla Black. In January 1972, just three days after my father died, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle still took me to see Clodagh Rodgers and Ronnie Corbett in Cinderella. And after that – for me – no more Palladium pantos! I didn’t see another panto until I was 19 (Mother Goose at Oxford, with John Inman). And after that, nada, until we took our nieces to see Cinderella in Malvern in 2006. But the London Palladium panto tradition was a very special thing, with its heyday being the late 40s, 50s and 60s. The last time one was staged was back in 1987 with – yet again – Cinderella. Now it’s 29 years later, and look what’s back!
Having loved my first three Palladium pantos, an irresistible force drew me to booking for this comeback show. And what a production it is! The old phrase “no expense spared” is often used, but this time it’s for real. The sets, the costumes, the orchestra, everything about it exudes riches and exquisiteness. They’ve got the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technology to make the pumpkin carriage fly through the air, and boy do they use it. With a nod to shows of the past, the panto includes the Sunday Night at the London Palladium theme, the famous revolving stage, and there’s even a brief homage to the Tiller Girls. The boys and girls of the ensemble and the supporting character parts give their all to make it a really entertaining night; and to top it all there is a star-studded lead cast that has to be seen to be believed. No surprise that it’s been a commercial success and that they’re already booking for Dick Whittington next December.
We saw a Friday evening performance – and you might expect that show to be a little more adult in its targeting than some of the matinees. To be fair, there were hardly any children there. That’s right, the Palladium, a theatre that seats over 2,400 people, showing a pantomime, and there was just a handful of kids. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had thought it would be an irreverent night full of theatrical fun, perfect for the break between Christmas and New Year, and no kids. I reckon over 2,300 other adults felt precisely the same. However, that was probably just as well, as the vast majority of the material was completely unsuitable for children. Cleverly unsuitable, for certain, in that it would go straight over their heads (possibly causing them to be a little bored occasionally) but unsuitable nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint, but merely an observation – I loved it!
The last time we saw Julian Clary do his stand-up routine I questioned whether or not his act was starting to become a trifle anachronistic, poking fun at effeminacy – especially his own – in this day and age. There’s no doubt he does it brilliantly and it brings the house down, but how 2017 is it? If the jury was out on that one, it’s just come back in, because in Cinderella Mr Clary’s performance as Dandini is an absolute triumph of camp filth. Scene after scene is crammed with double (and treble!) entendres, from his opening song about exploring Soho (to the tune of Downtown), to discussions about his muff and his ring, and being pulled off. Those few children who have sneaked in are totally bemused at why the adults are laughing so much. Actually, there was one teenager that Mrs C noticed, who understood all the dirty jokes but was having to suppress her laughter in case her mother caught her. Ah, the trials and tribulations of youth.
Trumping Mr Clary (although not in the American Presidential sense) – or not, you decide – is Paul O’Grady in the rarely seen role of Baroness Hardup, channelling his inner Cruella de Vil from the moment he gets out of his limo to the epiphany he has on the floor. I’d not seen him on stage before and he’s a right handful, I can tell you. As soon as an infant in the audience made a mewling noise he was straight on it: “Calpol that child, before I come down there and do it for you!” Between the two of them, Messrs Clary and O’Grady wiped the floor with the audience in a nice cop/nasty cop sort of way. They are hysterically funny. It must have been a complete toss-up (the innuendo is catching) as to which of them got top billing. I wonder who it was who told Mr Clary it wasn’t him.
More for the kids – although with plenty of adult twists – Paul Zerdin is a terrific Buttons, with his ventriloquist dummy sidekick Sam, dressed as a mini-Buttons. Sam has a mind of his own and can’t be trusted with anyone, as he both chats up and derides members of the audience, including the sexually-laden line “once puppet, never look back”. His is a brilliant act – no wonder he won America’s Got Talent in 2015. At one stage, he selects a couple from the audience to do the same masked vent act that we saw Nina Conti do in Edinburgh in 2015. Poor Richard and Angela – what great sports they were.
Amanda Holden is a very charming Fairy Godmother, with a lot of X-Factor/Cowell/talent show material that slips out at regular intervals. I rather enjoyed her performance because she doesn’t pretend to be anything that she isn’t – and when it came to the (highly enjoyable) If I Were Not in Pantomime routine, she messed it up a bit by getting the words wrong, and I found that rather endearing. Others, I believe, have been more critical. Cinderella is played by Natasha J Barnes and is a hearty and good natured soul in the best tradition of the role. Lee Mead, as Prince Charming, allows himself to be ridiculed by constant musical references to show tunes that he has made his own in previous productions and on TV; and, on even more of a self-deprecating trip, Lord Chamberlain Nigel Havers is constantly turning up, only to find he has no lines in this scene, and begging to be allowed to participate in the next. It’s a beautifully sequenced saga of ritual humiliation.
In a break from normal tradition, the Ugly Sisters are actually played by women! Suzie Chard and Wendy Somerville are the delightfully named Verruca and Hernia and they do a good job but they are basically outshone by the all the other stars that surround them. The only problem comes with Baron Hardup played by Steve Delaney’ alter ego, the rambling and forgetful Count Arthur Strong. As soon as the Count comes on and starts dithering it seems to sap all energy from the production. His laughs are few and far between and frankly (and this is an unpleasant thing to admit) you can’t wait for him to get off the stage. He redeems himself in the aforementioned If I Were Not in Pantomime scene, but I think his appearance is simply too much at odds with the showbizzy glamour of everything and everyone else on stage.
Still, the rest of the show is so good that this little quibble really doesn’t matter. A triumphant return of panto to the Palladium, and a packed theatre full of ecstatic punters. We’ll definitely be booking for next year!
Production photos by Paul Coltas and Steve Williams