Review – Dick Whittington, London Palladium, 29th December 2017

Dick WhittingtonFor the last evening of our Christmas London break we headed off to the glamour and excitement of the one and only London Palladium for this year’s pantomime, Dick Whittington. When panto returned to the Palladium last year for the first time in 29 years it was such a nostalgic and feelgood experience. Fortunately, it was also a box office smash and they soon advertised that is would be back this year. Oh yes it would.

All on deckThe Palladium pantos were always a must-see for their top-of-their-career stars, the amazing sets, the lavish dancing and their full, brilliant orchestra. Last year they showed that they were returning to the same high standards, and this year they pretty much surpassed themselves. There were a few recidivists; Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers all returned, all largely playing the identical role they played last year. Paul Zerdin – this time in the guise of Idle Jack – even chose a couple out of the audience to join him on stage for precisely the same routine as last year, where they are made to wear ventriloquist masks around their mouths so that their words are pure Zerdin but their eyes are pure panic. But it’s a very funny act, why change it?!

Dick and NigelNigel Havers this time was Captain Nigel – come on, we all know the pivotal role of Captain Nigel in Dick Whittington….don’t we? – still desperate for a decent scene, still the butt of nearly everyone else’s jokes. There was a very sweet moment when one of the four kids that Paul Zerdin got up on stage at the end of the show to sing Old Macdonald announced that his favourite performer of the evening had been Nigel. You’ve never seen a slightly maturing, thoroughly well-respected actor look quite so flippin’ delighted. Spirit of the BellsJulian Clary, fresh from his success as last year’s Dandini, returns as the Spirit of the Bells, make of that what you wish, punters. As you can imagine, gentle reader, in this particular pantomime, there was a lot of Dick. As usual, Mr Clary lets no innuendo escape unexpressed, nor does he hold back from teasing a corpse moment out of every other member of the cast. The rough, tough one out of Diversity was visibly shaking with barely suppressed guffaws as Mr C delivered him an unexpected double entendre.

Sultan and his advisorsTalking of whom, Ashley Banjo and Diversity appeared as the Sultan and his advisors, in a number of set dance pieces which, whilst not completely integrating with the show as a whole, carried on the old Palladium panto tradition of lively dance and comedy pratfalls. I looked on Diversity as the modern day equivalent of Charlie Cairoli and his clowns, who used to have me in hysterics as a lad. Diversity sure have a great stage impact, and all their contributions were very enjoyable.

Dick and EileenThis year’s other new blood were all pretty darn magnificent. Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams were reunited on stage after their superb performances in Half A Sixpence (still sadly missed) as Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren. Mr Stemp in particular continued to show what a brilliant find he is. He exudes a natural happiness on stage that is irresistible – and there were plenty of references to his past and future performances; a song with the Dame had the title Flash Bang Wallop, What a Sweetshop (I wonder where they got that from) and Mr Clary gave him a huge plug for his appearance on Broadway next year. Oh, and there’s another innuendo for you.

SarahGary Wilmot was a brilliant Dame – this time the standard Sarah The Cook becomes Sarah Fitzwarren. You can just tell how much Mr Wilmot absolutely adores doing this kind of thing; and his tube station patter song was a true pièce de résistance! Messrs Clary, Zerdin, Havers, Wilmot and Stemp gave us a tremendously anarchic performance of the Twelve Days of Christmas that involved Mr C hurling toilet rolls at the audience – not entirely sure that was meant to happen – and everyone stumbling over each other to get through the number unharmed, which they just about managed. A classic Palladium panto routine, performed to brilliant effect.

Queen RatAnd I’ve left the best to last! I have nothing but huge respect for the way Elaine Paige as Queen Rat allowed herself to be sent up something rotten. Her singing parodies of her best-known songs, including forgetting the words to Memory, were simply hilarious. And what was even more enjoyable was that her voice is still astounding. When she delivered her first big number, the chills down my spine were out of this world! It made me want to dig out my old EP albums. (Don’t judge me.)

Idle JackExtremely funny, glamorous and professional, this is just a wonderful way to celebrate the Christmas season on stage. Amazingly, there were even a few children in the Friday evening audience. Can’t think what they got out of it! This is simply an opportunity for you to go out, have a great laugh, see some fabulous routines and just be a child again. Want to be the first to hear about next Christmas’s Palladium panto? Click here!

Production photos by Paul Coltas

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 – Dick Whittington, Birmingham Hippodrome, December 30th

Dick WhittingtonWell 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.

Julian Clary 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).

Nigel Havers 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.

But.

Wayne Fitzsimmons 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.

Keith Harris 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.

Liam Tamne 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.

Kathryn Rooney 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.

Jeffrey HollandAdding 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.