Review – Snow White, London Palladium, 29th December 2018

Snow WhiteIt’s the third year that the tradition of the London Palladium panto has been revived, and I nabbed our tickets as early as I could. The last two Palladium pantos have been magnificent with their usual cast recidivists, Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers; topped up with Gary Wilmot and Charlie Stemp this year and last year, and a fresh baddie every year – first, Paul O’Grady, next Elaine Paige, and this year, Dawn French. As always, the production department has thrown everything at it – glamorous costumes, lively sets, a glorious orchestra, a superb supporting cast and a very funny script. Are you waiting for me to come up with a “but…..”?

Julian ClaryNo, there’s no buts. This is as exciting, hilarious and downright filthy as you might expect. I’m sure the majority of the children present – and there were surprisingly quite a few for a Saturday night – wouldn’t have understood one word that Julian Clary said; and if they did, then Social Services need a word with the parents. However, hidden within the concoction that is the panto Snow White, there were a few moments that would really appeal to kids: Paul Zerdin as Muddles, with his irrepressible puppet Sam, and Gary Wilmot’s Dame, as ever with a patter song, this time about all the stars that have ever appeared at the Palladium to the tune of I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General. Mr Wilmot had to stop the orchestra, actually, because he left a huge chunk of his list out! One sequence that took me back to my childhood was the appearance of the Palladium Pantaloons, four fast and funny acrobatic guys who took the roof off in the best Charlie Cairoli tradition.

vincent and flaviaKids also like Strictly Come Dancing, and this panto has special guest appearances by Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace. They perform two enchanting dances, the second of which is an Argentine Tango; it’s their speciality and you can’t take your eyes off them. They play the King and Queen but there’s no real attempt to integrate them into the rest of the plot; they’re just a couple of delightful interludes.

Danielle HopeThere’s also romance, in the form of the charming Danielle Hope as Snow White and the irresistible Charlie Stemp as Prince Harry of Hampstead. I’m sure I’m not risking any spoilers when I tell you that the two of them get married in the end, ahhh. That’s not before both of them have run the gamut of side-swipes from the waspish tongue of Mr Clary, of course. As last year, there were moments when Mr Stemp just couldn’t continue for laughing. His star quality shines through; and Mrs C and I can’t wait to see him in Mary Poppins later this year. And Ms Hope did a devilish thing during a slightly ham-fisted piece of comic business; she accidentally switched off the control button on the remote Sam, so when they were meant to be having a conversation together, Sam just sat there, like the dummy he is. One of the children brought on stage for a singalong at the end announced that that was their favourite moment of the show.

gary wilmotEven though they’re not mentioned in the title, Snow White does have her usual team of cohabitees at the house in the forest, here referred to as The Magnificent Seven. I can only presume it’s a copyright issue but none of them bear the same names as their counterparts in the original Disney film. Like, when did Happy become Cheery? Even Doc has now been upgraded to Prof; he must have been awarded an honorary degree somewhere. They are, of course, an ensemble all of their own, but I must say I do always enjoy seeing Craig Garner (Cheery) on stage; I still have very fond memories of his Tommy the Cat in Sheffield’s Dick Whittington a few years ago.

julian clary and nigel haversAnd of course, there’s Nigel. We know it’s Nigel because he has five big letters on stage around which he cavorts, just like Cilla did in her 1960s TV series. By the way, there’s precious little attempt for any of the performers to hide behind their character names. All the way through it’s Nigel, Dawn, Julian, Charlie etc on stage. This year’s ritual humiliation for Nigel is that he has finally been given a part – that of Julian Clary’s understudy. As you would expect, he doesn’t really come up trumps, but I do love how he allows the production to absolutely rip his credibility to shreds.

dawn frenchSo how do the big guns get on in this panto? Julian Clary only has to suggest the whiff of an innuendo and the audience are at his feet. Over the last decade he has become the supreme pantomimier, if there were to be such a word (I’ve just invented it); the arch practitioner who appreciates the combination of apparent innocence and utter filth and understands exactly how far to take it for the best comic effect. He is, of course, supported by the most outrageous costumes imaginable, some of them totally ridiculous. They must weigh a ton, so I reckon he’s stronger than he looks. Dawn French’s Queen Dragonella is, from the start, Dawn French dressed as a regal bully, admitting she hasn’t yet mastered the necessary evil cackle. It’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek all the way through, from her lascivious (and unsuccessful) chatting up of the Prince, to her final re-emergence as a much more familiar figure. She’s enormous fun (no joke intended) and her obvious lack of scariness is presented as a strength. “You don’t frighten me”, says Mr Clary as the Man in the Mirror, “last year I did eight shows a week with Elaine Paige”. Well, quite.

Paul ZerdinThere are only a handful of seats left for the remaining performances so you’d better get in quick. It’s a feast for all the senses and guaranteed guffaws from start to finish. Can’t wait for next year’s panto!

Nigel HaversP. S. Why do some people have to be so grouchy about letting people in and out of their seats during the interval? We were in the middle of Row G of the stalls and you’ve never met a more unhelpful bunch of surly selfish theatregoers. Beware – if you don’t try to let me through, I may end up stepping on your feet and I am heavy; your risk. Mrs C is much politer than me, but even she was forced to tell the unhelpful youth at the end of the row that she was literally stuck and that he’d have to stand up unless they were both going to stay there all night. Honestly, people, remember your theatre etiquette!

Gary WilmotP. P. S. As we all know, the London Palladium is a theatre of the highest reputation and standing, not only throughout the UK but also the world. On a sold-out Saturday night, I can only imagine the bar takings – they must be tremendous; and that’s good news because all revenue helps keep our theatres alive. Having quaffed a delicious Chardonnay before the show, we returned to collect our pre-ordered interval Chardonnays halfway through. I took my first gulp and it tasted revolting. One look at the liquid and you could tell it was a much, much lighter colour than the wine in the other glass. Could it possibly be that a theatre with the reputation of the Palladium is watering down its wine? We took it to the barman, said it had been watered down and he didn’t deny it – in fact, he quickly and sheepishly replaced both glasses with fresh Chardonnay from the bottle. Buyer beware!

Production photos by Paul Coltas

Review – Art, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th May 2018

ArtIt was almost 16 years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last saw Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art; it was at the Whitehall Theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) and the constantly changing cast at the time consisted of Ben Cross, Michael Gyngell and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Mrs C adored it; I liked it a lot, but I remember thinking that it lost its way halfway through. So I was keen to see how it shapes up to someone in their latish fifties in comparison with their earlyish forties.Art it's a white picture When I realised it was to be staged in the large Derngate auditorium I wondered if it was a good match; I’d have thought it was much more appropriate for the intimacy of the Royal. But, surprisingly, it works really well on a larger stage; it’s almost as though it gains a grandeur simply by virtue of space.

Art it's still a white pictureIn case you don’t know – modern art fanatic Serge has bought a painting for 200,000 Francs, and it’s a heck of a lot to pay, even for an Antios, from his 1970s period. The trouble is, the painting is just white. There are a few diagonal lines on it, and a little raised texture, but at the end of the day, it’s just white. Serge is enormously proud of it. He shows it to his friend Marc, a connoisseur of Flemish landscapes and portraits, who describes it as a piece of white shit. Art no matter which way you look at itHe shows it to their third friend Yvan, who’s not a connoisseur at all, who also recognises it as a piece of white shit but doesn’t want to offend Serge, so he tries to see in the painting all those aspects that appeal to the more cultured and experienced Serge. Yvan’s deliberate peace-keeping approach annoys the tetchy Marc; and consequently, their mutual friendship falters on the rocks.

Art things are getting heatedIn some regards the play is a fresh slant on The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the problem of whether to tell the pseud Serge that his painting, basically, has nothing on. From such a simple idea, Yasmine Reza (in a beautiful translation by Christopher Hampton) created a very deep and telling play about the nature of friendship, cultural superiority, art versus reason, fact versus fantasy, truth and falsehood, and the power of language. Words like deconstruction become a weapon in the struggle to establish a pecking order between Serge and Marc (Yvan’s already miles behind); the phrase the way she waves away cigarette smoke, for example, becomes a much more interesting sentence than the concept itself.

Art Marc has lost his sense of humourThat all sounds very dry and dusty but the reason this play ran for eight years in the West End is because it is so incredibly funny; and it also lends itself superbly to the strengths of a range of actors, each of whom can develop their characters in a way that suits the individual performer. In a sense (and soz if this sounds pretentious) each character is a blank canvas on which the actor can paint his own personality, providing it falls roughly within the guidelines of Marc = pedantic, Serge = artistically pompous, Yvan = ordinary Everyman. This touring production has a terrific cast, who capture our attention from the start and give three brilliant performances.

Art Serge has made a dreadful mistakeDenis Lawson gives a superb performance as the irascible Marc, with a clipped, no-nonsense delivery and the confident air of someone who always sees things in black and white (white mainly in this play). Nigel Havers is hilarious from the start as Serge, with his brilliant facial expressions and desperate need for approval from the others. Stephen Tompkinson’s Yvan is a wholly recognisable account of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who frankly couldn’t give a toss about the painting but does care deeply about his friends. All three work together incredibly well.

Art Yvan's getting marriedThere’s a scene towards the end that really challenges the audience as to how they feel about a) valuable paintings, b) this particular painting and c) to what extent you would trust your friend to do the right thing. When the friend doesn’t do the right thing, the gasp of horror from the audience is deafening. And then, the scene concludes with the biggest belly laugh of the night. Beautifully performed, and masterfully created by Reza/Hampton.

Art Nigel Havers and Denis LawsonSo how did this shape up, sixteen years since I last saw it? I thought it was brilliant. I got much more out of it this time; I’m not sure if that’s because of the performances or my own greater maturity (no honestly), but whatever, I’d really recommend this show. This Old Vic production has already been on a fairly extensive tour and has just three more stops after Northampton, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Canterbury. You must go!

Art by numbersP. S. By the end of the play I realised that I had become rather attached to the painting. There was something about its texture and essential whiteness that resonated within me. Maybe that Antios was on to something. However, I did see it more as a £29.99 job from the TK Maxx Home department than 200k.

Production photos by Matt Crockett

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 – Cinderella, London Palladium, 30th December 2016

CinderellaMy 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!

London PalladiumHaving 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.

lee-mead-and-natasha-j-barnesWe 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!

julian-clary-and-a-big-clockThe 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.

paul-ogradyTrumping 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.

paul-zerdin-sam-and-natasha-j-barnesMore 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.

julian-clary-and-nigel-haversAmanda 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.

count-arthur-strongIn 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

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.