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 – 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 – Oh What A Lovely War! Curve Theatre, Leicester, 18th April 2015

Oh What a Lovely WarThe words “Oh What a Lovely War”, “Theatre Royal Stratford East” and “Joan Littlewood” are inextricably linked, and have had almost legendary status within British 20th century drama ever since the show first appeared in 1963. It was originally a radio play by Charles Chilton, which was then developed by Joan Littlewood in conjunction with the whole of the original Theatre Workshop cast, to create this iconic, epic musical, telling the story of World War One through song and dance. The show was another on my bucket list of Still haven’t seen it after all these years and it’s about time I did. There is a film, that I also haven’t seen, directed by Richard Attenborough, that Joan Littlewood, apparently, hated. I’m not surprised – he ruined A Chorus Line too.

Britain 1914The highly stylised production gets as far away from the typical depiction of war as possible – Joan Littlewood didn’t want it to be horrific in any way. Instead the notion of war and the hard facts of fatalities are juxtaposed with a music hall and commedia dell’arte presentation to create its own, telling, anti-war story. Every barrier is broken down in this production. It starts off with the actors mingling with the audience, chatting about the performance they are about to see. Sadly no one mingled with us, but I overheard one performer explaining that he was wearing a pierrot costume as was traditionally worn in early 20th century revue shows, and as was used in the original Stratford East production. I saw another talking to an audience member and pointing out which one he was in the programme. So you’re starting with a great sense of equality between the cast and the audience, a level playing field where we’re all sharing the same experience, no matter whether we be audience member or performer.

Ian ReddingtonThere is a main MC who addresses the audience throughout the entire show apart from when he takes on a few different characters. He introduces us to the different songs and sketches as though this were some Edwardian end of the pier show – hence the suitability of the pierrot costumes. He encourages us to sing along with the songs if we know them. The majority of the under-lubricated matinee audience weren’t up for that, apart from the man two to my right who bellowed his way solo throughout much of the afternoon. You would have thought self-consciousness would kick in at some point, wouldn’t you? Cast members rush on and off the stage at odd moments and 90% of the material is extremely light-hearted. Act One takes us to the beginning of the war, with actors assuming the roles of nations having agreements and arguments in the lead-up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. It reminded me of a rather trendy history teacher getting the kids up in front of the class to act out war campaigns. I almost expected to see a blackboard rubber representing the Treaty of Versailles. We then see the early stages of the war, and the expectation it would all be over by Christmas. The act culminates in the famous 1914 Christmas trench scene, with the Germans singing Stille Nacht and Tommy and Fritz playing football in No Man’s Land – simply but very effectively staged.

OWALW ensembleAct Two takes us further into the war, where the innocent pleasure of enjoying light-hearted entertainment is constantly shattered by an electronic newsreel across the back of the stage, recounting the numbers dead or injured on individual days or at particular battlefields. Every so often you take your eyes of the performers just to read the horrendous casualty statistics. They bring the simple lightness of the stagey songs and dances into perspective. The audience questions itself as to how it reacts. How can we fritter away our time whilst they’re dying on the Somme? But there’s nothing we can do to stop it. And, actually, isn’t having fun what life really should be all about? Guilt, resignation, and powerlessness are just some of the emotions that overcome the audience. And, as the MC points out at the end, that this doesn’t only apply to World War One. When will the massacre of innocent people in war end? Will it ever end? Sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. The show is still a really forceful weapon in the argument against war, and Littlewood’s and Theatre Workshop’s left-wing bias stands out (refreshingly, in my opinion).

Richard Glaves and the girlsEver since the BBC dropped The Good Old Days, you don’t get to hear these old songs as often as we used to – in the good old days, in fact. Songs like It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the Home Fires Burning remain wartime standards; whilst Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts and I’ll Make a Man of You recollect the best music-hall traditions. A couple – Here Comes a Whizzbang, and Bells of Hell stop you dead in your tracks with the sheer horror of what they convey, and one, I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, brings a lump to your throat with the soldier’s simple plea for the return of his old life. On a personal note, it was lovely to hear Roses in Picardy again, as it was a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, and I used to enjoy playing it on the piano when I were a lad.

This is warIt’s an excellent cast who work together really well as an ensemble, both as pierrot entertainers and in their individual character sketches. Ian Reddington takes on the role of the MC with a likeable blend of cheek and cheese, plenty of knowing looks to the audience, but also full of portent when it comes to the gloomy prospects for the future. I really enjoyed him in the stupid but very funny sketch about the unintelligible sergeant barking garbled waffle at his troops. Taking the lead female role is Wendi Peters, larger than life and with a belter of a voice. In fact, if anything, her voice was a little too loud in comparison with everyone else. She’s one of these performers who simply doesn’t need amplifying. She brought out all the naughty music hall double entendres in her songs and has a wonderful stage presence. But all the cast are excellent; if you come to see the show, watch out for William Oxborrow struggling with an umbrella as a rifle and Alex Giannini’s hilarious “stage fright” moment.

Wendi Peters and the girlsThe show is still to visit Aylesbury, Birmingham, Truro, Hull and Wimbledon on its tour, and I’d recommend it for its emotionally strong anti-war vibe as well as its unusual and entertaining no fourth wall qualities. You come away with a sense of true gratitude and humility for the lives lost in war. Despite the preponderance of WW1 songs and clichés, its message is as relevant today as ever.