Review – Peter Pan, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2018

Peter PanHaving had a wonderful afternoon in the company of Fred and Lilli, Mrs Chrisparkle, Lord and Lady Prosecco and I regrouped after a brief rest to see Peter Pan at the Lyceum. Our annual visit to Sheffield would not be complete without the usual two and a half hours of the sheer joyful childishness of feeling ten years old again. As usual, Damian Williams returned as the fat bloke in a dress (his words), this time as Mrs Smee – we never found out what happened to Smee; I can only assume he suffocated.

damian-williamsWhat sets the Sheffield panto apart from all the rest is its pure energy. There may well be (indeed there are) pantos that are more lavishly produced, with starrier names and with bigger song and dance numbers. But when I’m in the Lyceum, laughing along with a thousand other souls, there’s simply nowhere else I’d rather be. There are, of course, all the usual running gags – the patter sketch which is just an excuse to make puns out of fruit and vegetables, the-castthe constant comparison with the Rotherham panto, and, naturally, the famous Lyceum bench scene, where we constantly shout out It’s Behind You as a ghostie picks off members of the cast one by one till only Mr Williams is left – and we all join in with Well! We’ll have to do it again, then, won’t we? Mrs C and I continue to use that phrase at appropriate moments the whole year long.

damian-williams-and-gemma-huntAs usual Mr Williams is just sensational. His constant asides, his stupid laugh, his magical connection with the audience, his infectious sense of fun, and his determination that every show should be even more enjoyable than the last, means that he is simply the best in the business. That’s why we have to keep coming back!

shaun-williamsonOur baddie this year was Shaun Williamson, who’ll never lose his association with a certain well-known soap opera; indeed, at one point Mr Williams turns to the audience and said You didn’t expect to see Barry from Eastenders doing Taylor Swift, did you? We certainly didn’t. Other things we didn’t expect to see were Mr Williams emerging from the Tardis dressed like the Jodie Whitaker Doctor Who (well, it is Sheffield, after all); Wendi Peters as Mrs Darling singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd, wendi-petersallegedly as a lullaby but forgetting that it’s originally when Mrs Lovett is trying to track Tobias down so he can be made into a meat pie; or two new characters – Ethel the Overacting Pirate (I don’t know how Emily Watkins kept up that hearty performance for the entire show), and Dave the Don’t Care Pirate (fantastic sulking from Emily McAvoy until Mr Williams deliberately made her giggle).

shaun-williamson-and-damian-williamsMr Williamson grabbed the baddie role with both hands (well, one hand and one hook) and revelled in it completely. He gave a delightfully stagey performance, whilst still being the perfect straight man foil to Mr Williams’ never-ending one-liners. emily-watkinsHe also has a surprisingly good singing voice! Ms Peters, of course, has a fantastic vocal range and enjoyed playing with her characterisations of a very posh Mrs Darling, an Estuary (appropriately) Mermaid and a right-northern Big Chief Squatting Cow.

gemma-huntNot being a CBBC or Channel 5 Milkshake watcher, I’d never seen Gemma Hunt (Tiger Lily) or David Ribi (Peter Pan) before, but they both threw themselves into the fun of the role; Ms Hunt in particular has a very warm and entertaining stage presence, and I was very pleased to be on her side of the auditorium when it came to the traditional out-singing the other lot number towards the end of the show. (For the record, it was a draw between the two sides. Yet again! How does that always happen?) Jo Osmond was a very punchy Tinkerbell – samantha-dorrance-and-david-ribiI bet she could get you into all sorts of trouble if she was your best friend – and Samantha Dorrance perfect as a very sweet and lovable Wendy; as usual, her enhanced affections for Peter went right over his head. Boys, eh, what are we like? For added thrills and spills this year, we had the very entertaining Diamond Acrobats, all the way from Tanzania; and our children on stage were the Red Team – full of fun and some extremely good acting too!

jo-osmondWith lively music, a cheerful ensemble, a very funny script (of course) and that fathomless energy that the Sheffield panto always inspires, this was another fantastic end to our Christmas season. Cinderella awaits this December – we’ve already booked!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – Mother Goose, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Mother GooseFor the second show of our Sheffield weekend we made our annual pilgrimage to the Lyceum Theatre for the unmissable Lyceum panto. This year, Mother Goose; and – as every year for the last ten years – it starred Damian Williams. Mr Williams’ tenth anniversary as the city’s favourite dame did not go uncelebrated; and quite right too, as he has carved out for himself a dream of a niche position – he is Mr Panto.

Jill, Mother Goose and CharlieWhy would you want to see the same actor every year performing more or less the same role? It’s a fair question, but the answer’s simple; he’s the best in the business. His instant rapport with the audience is a true thing of beauty. You know he will spend the whole two and a half hours taking the mickey out of himself, and of us, and of his fellow cast members, and of the show itself, and of Rotherham, and of the band, and so on and so on. Going back to the Sheffield panto itself every year is like the most self-indulgent comfort eating. Fairy GoodfeatherIt’s returning to something that you love, that nourishes you, that makes you feel all warm and safe, and that never lets you down. You know it will begin with the boys and girls of the ensemble running into the auditorium singing Bring Me Sunshine. You know the wooden bench will come out to a great fanfare and that Mr Williams and others of the cast will sit on it and sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life whilst ghoulies appear behind them, then we shout It’s Behind You? What is? A Ghost? Is there? The other Mother Goose and the villagersWell! We’ll have to do it again then won’t we! as the ghosts pick off the cast members one by one till only Mr W is left which makes the ghosts run off in terror instead. If that didn’t happen, you’d be entitled to your money back. You know there’ll be a spurious patter sketch where they punfully mention the names of either perfumes or aftershave, board games, pop groups, local towns and villages, newspapers and magazines, or as it was this year, shop names. Every year the same. Every year a winner.

Mother Goose and Demon VanityMother Goose isn’t among the most popular of pantos and this is only the second time I’ve seen it – the first being back in 1980 with the late John Inman as the dame. There’s something much funnier and totally ridiculous about having the dame as a “fat bloke in a dress” (their words, not mine) rather than a slim, camp man who actually looks rather good in a dress; nothing against Mr Inman of course, who was a fine comedy actor. But Mr Williams delights in his grotesquerie and really doesn’t care quite how preposterous he looks. This was particularly appropriate for this panto, as Mother Goose (the character) has decided she’s fed up with being teased for her looks and wants to be thought of as beautiful. Fat chance, love. But as she tries to be more beautiful, her personality becomes more ugly. Eventually all her friends and family say she’s not the MG they used to know and love anymore. MG gives in, stops all the vanity lark, and everyone’s happy again. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Demon VanityThe story of Mother Goose is so slight you could tell it in less than a sentence, which enables the creative team in this show to go to town on the characterisations and the interplay between the characters and the audience. Who cares about the story, when you’ve got Mateo from Benidorm getting the hots for himself in a mirror, with Mr Williams as his mirror reflection puckering back at him. There’s always one killer comedy scene in the panto, and that was it for this year. Jake Canuso, as “Demon Vanity” (who?), is playing his first pantomime (I think) and was a terrific sport, with the script absolutely playing up to his foolish and vain TV Lothario persona; never missing an opportunity to pout provocatively at anything passing by or to languish lavishly at the foot of the stage, always demanding the attention of the laydeez (and doubtless some of the gentz too). Mr Canuso impressed with his early dance training and is suprisingly nimble on his toes.

SquireElsewhere, Mr Williams was merciless with Adam Price, who played the Squire; Mr Price was giving some extra characterisation to his role with a bit of vocal trickery, and Mr Williams was like a dog with a bone. Teasing him to the nth degree, he did not let go until his prey was fully vanquished. He joked with Andy Day about he looks like Fatima Whitbread, and OMG he does; he constantly referred to one of the male dancer/villagers as Barbara – although he really didn’t look like a Barbara to me. I don’t think any of the cast got through the show completely unscathed, but it was all totally hilarious. Mr Williams picked on the hapless man at the end of the front row for a bit of audience participation, including naming the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs. The song that was introducing her firmly suggested the name Faith would be perfect to fit in with the lyrics. His choice? Wilbur. For a female goose. You couldn’t make it up.

Fairy Goodfeather againThis year’s two best lines: 1) when dressed as a mobile phone Mr Williams said he was going off for a rest as he’d downloaded an app (a nap, geddit?) and 2) when Mother Goose was told to lose weight, she thought the advice was “Don’t eat anything fatty” whereas in fact it was “Don’t eat anything, Fatty”. There was a 3D sequence in the second half, where we all had to don our special glasses. I always get muddled up trying to put them on over my own glasses, but fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle has had special training from Help The Aged to help me put them on. In the sequence, we accompanied MG flying through the air, and at once stage through a snow storm, during which, through some clever technology, rain came down upon as all and I got thoroughly soaked! Fortunately I have a terrific sense of humour.

Jill, Billy and CharlieMy other favourite feature of the show was the regular appearances of Lisa Davina Philip as Fairy Goodfeather. I loved her characterisation as a truly well-urban street-Jamaican fairy. It was a brilliantly modern and inventive take on an old format and Ms Philip was side-splittingly hilarious all the way through. I’m sure her fairy dust would be littered with rice ‘n’ peas. Definitely the funniest fairy I’ve seen in many a year!

The castThe kids we saw were the Red Team and they gave it everything – some really good dancers too! Cara Dudgeon and Dylan Craig were suitably cute together as Jill and Charlie Goose, and were pretty damn good at the singing and dancing too. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the dame. There’s nothing like a dame, and there’s no other dame like this one.

Booking has already started for Peter Pan next Christmas – Mr Williams’ eleventh season. Can’t wait!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Lyceum Theatre, 7th January 2017

Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIt’s that time of the year again when Mrs Chrisparkle and I take Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William for our annual Sheffield shindig, comprising of panto in the afternoon and Crucible show in the evening. It’s never failed yet. Of course, the main attraction of seeing the Sheffield panto is one’s annual fix of Damian Williams as Pantomime Dame. No one can do it quite like him. And it will come as no surprise that, as always, this season’s Sheffield panto was a laugh-a-minute engaging delight.

sw1So then, Snow White. We all know the story. Poor girl and prince fall in love but wicked queen gets her to eat a bad apple and falls into a coma. Should’ve gone to Waitrose. Prince wakes her up with a kiss and they live happily ever after (Sondheim’s Into The Woods notwithstanding.) So what’s different about this Snow White? Two of the villagers are performed by circus artistes, so there are some balancing acts and roller skating to enjoy. And, naturally, it features some Sheffield-only specialities. The voice (and indeed disembodied face) of the voice in the Mirror (who tells the queen who is the fairest of them all, keep up) is none other than Broomhill’s own Michael Palin, delivering his wisdom with a thick South Yorkshire accent and saying “Up the Blades” a little too often. This year, the famous returning Lyceum Theatre bench/ghost scene has been up-spec’d, as we are called on to don 3-D glasses to see real ghosties – not just actors covered with sheets – looming at the back of the set. This works really well – they interact with the audience with alarming dexterity, and the whole thrilling scene is worthy of its own spot at Disneyland.

sw2And of course, you have Damian Williams as Nurse Nellie, in a series of preposterous outfits, including as the biggest Brownie you ever saw (outfit was good value – 50% off Guide price, boom, boom). His interplay with the boys and girls of the ensemble is as wicked as ever, with sideswipes like “three years at RADA for this”. The ensemble, by the way, are really excellent this year, full of fun and really good singers and dancers. When Prince Charming first arrives, everyone believes he is looking for a wife. At the very thought of it, one of the village girls swoons. When the Prince clarifies that that might not necessarily be the case, one of the village boys swoons. Very nicely done!

sw3But the absolute highlight of the panto was the sequence towards the end when Herman the Henchman, played with great enthusiasm by Richard Franks, finally gets to realise his dream of singing to a live audience, as he turns into Freddie Mercury and presents a sequence of Queen numbers with full backing cast all Mercury-moustachioed. Damian Williams came on for no more than a few seconds looking the spitting image of Mercury in the I Want To Break Free video. The Bohemian Rhapsody element was best of all, as the stage went black and the lights just picked out the seven moustachioed dwarfs in formation giving it the full Scaramouche Fandango treatment. Inspired and brilliant.

sw4Without getting into awkward pitfalls on the subject, I was pleased to see that the seven dwarfs were really that, rather than seven uncomfortable actors hobbling around on their knees. It’s patronising and it looks ridiculous. Our seven chaps brought loads of character to the show, and I particularly enjoyed Deano Whatton as trendy Groover, Graham Hughes as the cynical Brian, and Craig Garner as Cheeky, who sings an overly sentimental song to Snow White yet manages to stay on the right side of mawkish. We’d seen Mr Garner a couple of years ago when he played Dick Whittington’s rather loveable cat, and it’s good to see him back. I loved Jite Ighorodje’s (Brains) game with the audience where he randomly multiplies any set of numbers they threw at him – he’s one smart cookie. And big up to Andrew Martin, who plays Sarge, for his incredible sporting achievements – he’s currently the world number two ranked singles player in Para-Badminton.

sw5Snow White also presents an opportunity for a feisty, larger than life lady to get her teeth into the villainous role of the wicked queen – in this show she’s named Ivannah, which, surprisingly, isn’t used for a series of puns. Wendi Peters takes the role with great gusto; she’s a fantastic singer and the production really uses that strength to great effect. Phil Gallagher is excellent as the friendly and engaging Muddles, and I actually felt sorry for him when his kiss didn’t wake Snow White up. I know, I’m getting very soft in my dotage. Oliver Watton sang well and looked the part of Prince Charming whilst fending off Nurse Nellie’s passionate kisses; and Joanna Sawyer’s powerful voice made for quite a forceful Snow White. They looked great together and will have beautiful babies.

img_8471One final unusual twist – we were encouraged to take photos of the final scene and post them on social media! I guess everyone always wants to see pictures of a Royal Wedding. So here are a few of mine! 2017’s panto willimg_8473 be Mother Goose and will be Damian Williams’ tenth anniversary of playing the dame at the Lyceum. I trust they present him with his own bench, engraved with the words: well! We’ll have to do it again then, won’t we! I have no doubt we’ll be there.

img_8475P. S. No better way to end a panto than to have streamers cascading from the ceiling. I managed to wrap a good strong one round my head and chest, img_8479determined to take it home. Then I saw a little girl two seats away from me desperately looking for some streamer-souvenir. Bravely, I vowed to give her mine if she didn’t find her own. She did!! I kept mine!! Win-win!!!

Production photos (apart from the Royal Wedding photos) by Robert Day

Review – Aladdin, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2016

AladdinEvery 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.

Damian WilliamsWe 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.

Chris GascoyneThere 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.

Hilary O'NeilI 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.

Wishee, Pongo and TwankeyThe 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.

Jonathan HalliwellHowever, 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.

Review – Dick Whittington, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 3rd January 2015

Dick WhittingtonWhere 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.

Dick Whittington stageThe 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.

Damian WilliamsBack 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.

Samantha WomackAs 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.

John BarrAll 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!

Jo ParsonsA 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.

Andy DayThis 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. Craig GarnerHowever, 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.

Captain CrabstickThe 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 – Gemma Suttonand 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”; Tramaine Wrightand 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!

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Lyceum Theatre Sheffield, 4th January 2014

Jack and the BeanstalkAnother of our now regular yuletide practices is to pay a visit to Sheffield on the first Saturday of January to see the Lyceum panto at the matinee, and whatever spectacular is on at the Crucible in the evening; and each year it continues to pay dividends. I have a very soft spot for Jack and the Beanstalk as it was the first pantomime I ever saw; January 1st 1969 at the London Palladium, aged 8. I’d seen a few amateur plays at the local memorial hall but this was not only my first panto but also my first visit to a London theatre. Since then, I think it’s safe to say, I haven’t looked back. Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castJack was Jimmy Tarbuck; the Dame was Arthur Askey; and like all those late 60s/early 70s Palladium pantos there were Charlie Cairoli and Company (who I loved), Ivor Emmanuel, and host of other variety acts interspersed. I remember very clearly that the opening song was the villagers singing Manfred Mann’s “My Name is Jack”, which introduced Jimmy Tarbuck as being the chief of the wayward boys and girls who lived in the Greta Garbo home – Google the lyrics if that doesn’t make any sense to you. I think I was so ecstatic at being there that the memory is imprinted on my brain. Funny how something simple like that can stay with you for a lifetime.

Damian WilliamsThe Palladium panto was always a stylish, flashy, music- and dancing-packed affair, with the latest in technological elements (such as they were then). The recently finished Derngate panto, Sleeping Beauty, was very much in that vein. Then there is another kind of panto, where 3D effects and big star names take a back seat, and the show relies more on traditional routines, and a funny script, and the annual Sheffield panto is a perfect example. For Jack in the Beanstalk, Sheffield’s favourite Damian Williams returned for his sixth consecutive panto season, and he’s already signed up for Dick Whittington this December. Why break a winning run? You’ve never seen an audience so happy to welcome back an old favourite, and Mr Williams absolutely knows how to keep the crowd in a constant state of laughter. He’s also really gifted at appealing to the adults too, with a quick witted turn of phrase that might occasionally befuddle the kids but will have all the grown-ups guffawing. And he knows that sacrificing one’s personal dignity is all part of the game – for which much thanks, if only for his phenomenal appearance as Miley Cyrus with her wrecking ball. Just brilliant! As long as Mr Williams keeps coming back to Sheffield, so will we.

H from StepsJack was played by Ian H Watkins, or H from Steps as he’s better known; cue lots of gags about how brilliant S Club 7 were. Messrs Watkins and Williams had a good double act going, where both would readily step out of character and be themselves defending their careers. They used the pop music theme for the annual patter gag scene – this year it was the names of groups and singers all strung together to make a story, and very clever and funny it was too. Sarah Earnshaw was the Vegetable Fairy, who spoke in rhyming couplets that were actually witty, had some good comic accents and I for one was very happy to give her a big cheer every time she appeared. Andrew Fettes was the Giant’s villainous sidekick Hefferflumphenstein, whose running gag about how his name should be pronounced was used perhaps a couple of times too many; but he was suitably wicked and it was very kind of him to allow us to call him Shorty.

Madeleine LeslayMadeleine Leslay was a very pure and pretty Princess Tamara; cue for a sequence of puns with “tomorrow” that we were encouraged to count out as the show progressed. I bumped into her (literally) in the Crucible Corner bar later that evening and just managed to stop myself from saying, “sorry Princess”; which would have been quite embarrassing. There was a nice twist that whenever anyone talked about infiltrating the Giant’s lair at the top of the Beanstalk, it was to save Molly the Cow and the Lyceum bench (more of which shortly) rather than the Princess, whom they kept on forgetting. Pete Dunwell was a larger than life King Eric, a buffoon who assists the Dame in mixing the ingredients to make ice-cream and literally uses his head, as the Dame suggested. Cue for a tarpaulin on the stage to catch all the slimy goo so we can quickly move on to the next scene. The talented ensemble of six singing and dancing adult boys and girls gave great support and added a little eye-candy to the proceedings together with some good hearted fun. And we all went crazy with the peas; soft green balls that we all had to throw at the stage when the Fairy said we could to help beat the Giant.Sarah Earnshaw I managed to get hold of one chucking pea, but the little lad next to me didn’t get one, so I selflessly let him have my pea. He was thrilled; but he was useless at throwing it. Never mind, we still defeated the Giant. The band were great as usual, under the direction of Andy Booth, and the junior ensemble were very well schooled and fun to watch.

A couple of years ago, it seemed like every panto we saw was blighted by that wretched dog Churchill going “oh yes” or “oh no”, presumably as a sop to the insurance company that was sponsoring the show. This year at Sheffield we had Molly the Cow. Now, of course, the cow is an intrinsic part of the show. Jack thinks he’s getting a big bag of gold in return for her but he is duped by the wicked Hefferflumphenstein and only gets a handful of beans; and of course the pantomime cow is sister to the pantomime horse (so to speak),Andrew Fettes and so definitely has her place in the show. But I did think they overplayed the association of Molly the Cow with Sheffield Theatres’ interval ice-cream of choice, Our Cow Molly. Having said that, I loved Mr Williams saying that if your parents don’t buy you an ice-cream in the interval, that is a proven fact that they don’t love you. I hope no one took it seriously! Similarly, the constant references to the Lyceum Theatre bench, which is also captured by the Giant, actually meant that when the bench scene finally takes place (“it’s behind you”) I thought it slightly lost its usual impact. I think it’s funnier with ghosties than with zombies. Nevertheless, that bench had better still be there next year!

Those are very minor quibbles by the way. It’s an extremely fun, fast-paced and entertaining panto, and we’ll definitely be back for Dick Whittington!

Review – Cinderella, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2013

CinderellaWe’re well into January now and all the pantomimes have finished for the season. Let’s have a big “aahhhhh”. When did the panto season become so short? When I were a nipper, the Palladium panto used to carry on until at least February, possibly even March if I remember rightly. Mind you, they were big variety shows, with enormous star names. The first one I went to was Jack and The Beanstalk, with Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack and Arthur Askey as the Dame. That was in 1968. The 1970/1 panto was Aladdin, with Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, and Terry Scott. In 1972 it was Cinderella with Ronnie Corbett as Buttons, Terry Scott and Alfred Marks as the Ugly Sisters and Clodagh Rodgers as Cinders. Big names that carried big shows, that big audiences wanted to see. But now that we’re in the second week of January 2013, this Cinderella has already packed up her crystal slipper and gone to ground for eleven months.

Jonathan AnsellNevertheless, the panto tradition, it seems to me, is still doing amazingly well. Virtually every theatre in the country, outside the West End, has an annual pantomime. A source of bemusement to overseas visitors, this essentially British form of entertainment allows you to do all those naughty things that you’re not normally allowed to do in a theatre. The more rules it breaks, the more it conforms to the tradition. The older I get, the more I love them, and it’s an enormous pleasure to have discovered one of the country’s best places for panto, the Sheffield Lyceum.

Sue DevaneyWe went last year, for the first time, and saw their Sleeping Beauty. There would be no question we would book again for this year – and I am sure we will book for next Christmas too. At the heart of the Sheffield panto, is their favourite pantoiste (nothing to do with Sheffield by the way, he’s from Essex) Damian Williams. This is his fifth consecutive season doing the Sheffield panto and he’s confirmed to be “daming” again for the sixth time in Jack and The Beanstalk next December. He’s just such a breath of joy. Loud, cheeky, back-chatting, engaging, not afraid to make an idiot of himself, and very very funny, I don’t know of any performer who can turn his hand to this form of entertainment with such fresh gusto.

Ben FaulksOf course it really helps that Paul Hendy’s script, like last year’s, is so funny, and that the production is full of colour, great costumes, and a terrific band – who were responsible for one of the funniest moments too, when they vocalised the Lone Ranger theme. It seemed like a very happy company, and their on-stage ease with each other really helped the transfer of excitement and joy to the audience.

Kate QuinnellOur Prince Charming was Jonathan Ansell, an ex-member of G4, who shot to fame on X-Factor. I’d not heard of him before – indeed I thought G4 was some kind of international conference – but the young lady sat to my right was clearly a fan. Every time he came on she preened with pleasure, laughed at his lines, swooned at his singing and clapped really really hard so her hands must have stung. It’s true, he has a great voice and a bright appeal to make all the ladies, and a few of the gentlemen, tingle with delight.

Ian SmithSue Devaney was the Fairy Godmother, flying in from the wings, acting as a narrator but also popping up here and there in the story too. She used her Lancashire accent to great comic effect and, like the best Fairy Godmothers, could be both graceful and cackhanded. Absolutely perfect for the top of the tree.

Michael J BatchelorDandini was Ben Faulks, or, as Damian Williams constantly referred to him, CBeebies’ Ben Faulks – again there’s no way I would know him from TV – but he was bright and chirpy and a good stooge to Mr Williams and the Prince. Kate Quinnell was a very attractive Cinderella, wide-eyed and eager to please her horrid sisters, and occasionally showing flashes of a wicked sense of humour during those slightly wayward moments towards the end of a run – useful for when the scenery didn’t fall into place properly in one scene. Her delightful singing was equal to Mr Ansell’s and they made a great pair together. Talking of which, Ian Smith and Michael J Batchelor were extremely good and extremely horrible Ugly Sisters, daubed in grotesque make-up and wearing wonderfully ghastly fashion creations. David Westbrook was a surprisingly sprightly and cheeky Baron Hardup and I particularly loved the scene where he emerged as a Carmen Miranda backing dancer.

David WestbrookThe dancing villagers were all very entertaining and each brought their own personality to the ensemble routines – I was very pleased to see, amongst their number, Lee Bridgman, who we enjoyed very much in TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, one of the best TV reality/talent shows IMHO.

Damian WilliamsBut there’s no doubt the show belongs to Damian Williams. Whenever he’s onstage the energy sharpens and the laughter doubles. Very much a 21st century Tommy Cooper, he handles the usual panto scenes so deftly and wonderfully – like the “ghosts behind you” scene, where, as usual, he adopts the identity of a Sheffield icon – this time Jessica Ennis, which I have to say was one of the funniest visual images I have seen for a very long time. It was made even funnier in the matinee we saw as the bench they were sat on upended and sent Crucibella flying onto her backside and struggling to regain composure. Mr Williams also did an excellent Bruce Forsyth Strictly parody with Miss “Twice Daly” Devaney, a great sequence with Mr Faulks as they made a sketch out of the name of every board game under the sun; and, in the midst of some brilliant one-liners throughout the show, I loved his riposte when Cinderella said she loved him, but as a brother – “we could move to Norfolk?”

The Sheffield panto is something to look forward to throughout the whole year – make it a Christmas priority!