Welcome back to the second half of my critical mauling of the panto season just gone. I’ve cheered up a little bit. I do love pantomime after all and sometimes it can be hard not to lose sight of that. I care about panto so much that I desperately hate to see it not done properly, or not respected, or treated lazily. I think sometimes this is harder felt when you are in the throes of performance yourself. The productions I am about to review have probably benefited from my being a less tired and excited about their own production, audience member. Let’s see shall we...
PETER PAN, King’s Theatre Glasgow (or Glasgae)
My parents have just moved to Glasgow, so this was my first ever opportunity to see a Scottish pantomime. Scottish pantomimes are known for being quite different to their English counterparts and having their own unique style and history. If I’m honest, Peter Pan wasn’t quite as different as I had expected; but some of the jokes were a complete mystery to me. I think it might be one of the most successful renderings of the story as pantomime that I’ve seen. I was a particularly big fan of Greg McHugh as Smee, who was the most like Ant Payne that I have seen any comic be. He really held the stage naturally and you could feel the auditorium’s atmosphere change every time he came on stage. I can’t even explain how funny he was: he made the show a pantomime. That’s quite special! I feel that as the King’s was celebrating its 50th anniversary of staging a pantomime that First Family could have made a little bit more effort with putting in a set that hadn’t clearly seen better days and maybe they could have made the flying a bit more spectacular (does no one fly through the auditorium anymore?); you know: really give the audience a production that shows they respect the venue’s history. Certainly, in the rhyming couplets at the end, which summed up panto at the King’s, all the names mentioned: Gerard Kelly, Rikki Fulton, Stanley Baxter etc, got appreciative shouts, laughter and applause from the crowd. It was a lovely feeling to be sat amongst an audience that clearly values a pantomime tradition.
TREASURE ISLAND, Pavilion Theatre Glasgow
I’ll be honest: I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to panto; I don’t really like to see subjects that I don’t consider part of the formal cannon. I mean, some of the common stories can make pretty dire pantomimes, so I don’t hold out much hope for non-traditional subjects! However, I felt that the Pavilion panto might be even more traditional than the King’s so I didn’t want to miss out. And what an afternoon I had! I got a free ticket thanks to a group of lady ramblers from the Isle of Bute who had some spares. Such generosity was completely uncalled for, but I had a lovely afternoon with them and helpfully got a few language translations in the interval! I found the show itself a bit surreal. It seemed to follow Robert Louis Stevenson’s story quite well and contained a lot of pantomime elements, but no one could really decide who the baddies were; they sang songs at really random points and the second half was done in monochrome! However, I have never seen a pantomime that demonstrated such good will. Every single person in the cast was only doing it for the audience; it’s really hard to explain, but the cast clearly loved the crowd. It was the friendliest auditorium I’ve ever been in and I had a wonderful time! Johnny Mac (as a parrot) was great, even making clearly set up mistakes look natural. Michelle McManus and Cat Harvey were a fabulous double act who just wanted people to have fun. It was like watching your mum’s friends messing around and that was really warming. I would love to see a panto at the Pavilion again. Even the technical side of things was impressive: projectors, lasers, LCD screens. Before the show started I asked the rambling ladies why they came to the Pavilion; once the show had finished it was quite clear why!
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Plymouth Theatre Royal
So, if you’ve read my blog for a while you will know that Plymouth is where everything started for me (including life!): it’s where I started performing; where I realised I loved theatre and where, in 1996, I realised that pantomime was the most joyous thing I’d ever seen and it was what I wanted to do. That means that re-visiting the theatre, especially to see panto, is exciting, but scary: there’s quite a lot of nostalgia and significance riding on the show! Things got off to a good start because I met Jeffrey Holland (Spike, from Hi-De-Hi) who is one of the first dames I ever saw and certainly the first one I remember.
This is, essentially, a picture of me trying to keep my face calm.
That's me with Jack Tripp and Noel Butler as Priscilla. I am not a giant.
Fortunately the show was as spectacular and engaging as I remember them being as a child. Rosie Glossop, who came to Egypt with us, was the fairy and did a pretty good job of stealing the show. She has a fabulous voice and really made the magical moments matter. Bobby Davro was the headliner and I enjoyed him more than usual; I suspect because this was his second year in a row in Plymouth so he couldn’t do his usual material. No fornicating kangaroos this time, thank goodness. If you don’t know what I’m talking about I can only suggest you remain naive: do not search ‘BOBBY DAVRO KANGAROO’ on YouTube YOUR LIFE WILL NOT IMPROVE. (Footnote: fortunately that search brings up nothing. Don't thank me, thank YouTube.)
BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, Oxford Playhouse
Beauty and the Beast is a pantomime I have never seen and not one that I have ever been particularly interested in. However, I have been commissioned, through my business One Click Scripts, to write a new version of the story, so I thought it would be worth a visit; plus Leon Craig was the dame and it’s good to support your friends! Well... Leon must have some good friends! This was the most confusing, random, pantomime I’ve ever watched. At one point I had no idea what was happening. The baddy was played by a light (yep!), the fairy took a muffin from a child and ate it, the beast and the prince were the same person but played by two people so they could both be on stage at the same time, whilst the dame and comic were figments of Beauty’s imagination but at one point I think they helped her out in real life I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT WAS GOING ON!!!! I know I say this all the time, but really: what is wrong with just putting on a normal pantomime. I understand that maybe the Playhouse was trying to be intelligent and alternative – but alternative from what? They’re the only panto in town! They’re already alternative. So just put on a decent show and give audiences what they want. And another thing: I have no problem having the band on stage, but at least get them to dress properly. The Musical Director was wearing a mauve t-shirt and looked like he had no idea that he could be seen! That was the second time this season that I’ve wanted to leave in the overture. I’m glad I stayed though, because Leon was fabulous and really saved the day. I mean: thank goodness somebody understood that they were supposed to be doing a pantomime.
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, Birmingham Hippodrome
This is the big one! I love leaving this one ‘til last because it’s always the most spectacular and the starriest. It’s quite a long run too and it did seem that fatigue was setting in in quite a big way at the performance we saw. Jane McDonald was the star and did a lovely job singing, but has bizarrely little stage presence or grace! Not an ideal fairy by far! The real star of this Hippodrome panto currently is Matt Slack who is incredibly funny and still appears to be spontaneous. Paul Zerdin, on the other hand, is an excellent example of someone who is just going through the motions and audiences don’t engage with him at all. Gary Wilmot in his second year as dame gives a lovely, warm performance, but really could do with being used more. He’s great at comedy and working a crowd, but really doesn’t get the chance.
So there we go: things improved! Now that my critical facility towards pantomime is fully functional I'm looking forward to next year's season. I'm looking forward, even more, to maybe just seeing five or six pantos. Do you reckon I can do that? Bets on the table.