Category Archives: Pantomimes & seasonal shows

Holy Mackerel!

(reviewed at Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich on 19 December 2016)

You expect something different from Eastern Angles’ Christmas shows – and this year’s offering certainly lives up to that expectation. The script is by Harry Long and produced in partnership with the West Country-based Shanty Theatre Company. The story (yes, there is one, and it’s based on fact) concerns what happened in 1896 when East Anglian fishing-boats muscled in on the mackerel shoals around Newlyn.

At that period, most of the Newlyn fishermen were staunch Methodists, not putting to sea between Saturday sunset and Monday dawn. The East Anglians (nicknamed “Yorkies” in Cornwall) had no such scruples and cornered the weekend market by loading their catches onto the early Monday morning train to Billingsgate market in London.

Unsurprisingly, rioting ensued which involved over 1,000 Cornish men. Long’s script homes in on just a few main characters, neatly defined for the audience by wearing their names (or those of their boats) on skirts or tarpaulins. Mags (Louise Callaghan) is our heroine, an attractive committed Methodist who falls for not-too-bright Norman (Long) who, among other educational deficiencies, has no idea of what Methodism might be.

No story to do with the sea would be complete without a thorough-going villain. Christian Edwards plays Brassy, all country-gentleman tweeds and shooting-stick; he is the owner of the boats attempting to muscle in on the Cornish mackerel harvest. Mabel Clements and David Copeland complete the cast which – Tim Bell’s production is in the full Eastern Angles tradition of 17 parts (not to mention songs, dances and instrumental accompaniments) being shared among a minimum quantity of players.

Verity Quinn has designed some interesting sets and costumes. Stu McLoughlin is the composer with Barnaby Southgate as musical director. Penny Griffin’s lighting adds to the atmosphere. It may be slightly offbeat even for an Eastern Angles Christmas show but this collaboration with a like-minded theatre company suggests that the seeds of similar productions may already be germinating.

Holy Mackerel! is at the Seckford Theatre, Woodbridge until 23 January and at the Key Theatre, Peterborough between 26 and 30 January.

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Snow White

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 December 2015)

If you’re looking for real value for your money among this year’s crop of regional pantomimes – not to mention a show which is visually and musically satisfying – then Norwich’s Snow White is the show for you. The curtain rises on a snowy landscape, complete with skaters, which is obviously not a million miles from Salzburg. The period is that faintly Ruritanian one just before the First World War.

Award-winning Kirsteen Wythe is the costume designer, using a simple dark palette based around reds, browns and black for the adult ensemble shown off against proper story-book sets. Richard Gauntlett is the writer and director and also plays Dame Dorothy Dumpling – which is probably something which by now he could do in his sleep, though this Dame is a very lively spark, nicely contrasted by Ben Langley’s Muddles.

Our heroine is Amie Hows with Jennifer Ellison as the slinkiest, most glittering of villainesses as her aunt Queen Evilynne. The pontifical voice of her magic mirror is BBC Look East‘s presenter Stewart White, not an authority to be trifled with (even when the Queen’s magic interferes with the video picture). Her unwilling accomplice and put-upon henchman Igor is strong-voiced Bruce Graham.

The catalyst is a joint one. Snow White is nearly of an age to claim the throne and has grown into a beautiful young lady. Enter the dashing Prince Frederick (David Burilin), in search of a bride and remembering the little princess with whom he once played. Of course, that doesn’t suit Evilynne at all; she fancies him all to herself. So Snow White is sent into the forest and Igor has his murderous instructions.

Igor refuses to fulfil his gory mission but leaves Snow White at the mercy of the elements. You think you know just what happens next? Think again. The sympathetic miners who take her in are brilliant rod-operated creations by Norwich’s Puppet Theatre, all individual and un-Disneyfied and very well manipulated by members of the ensemble. Bossy The Major, burping Windy and also-ran Boris are set to be audience favourites. Later on we meet T-Bone the dinosaur.

With Dee Jago’s choreography well suited to both the child and adult dancers, musical director David Carter has plundered a whole range of scores, not forgetting Sullivan, Waldteufel and Rodgers, to put the vocal talents of Burilin, Howes and Graham to the test. They pass magnificently. The special effects are a delight for both adults and children. I defy you to be bored with this Snow White.

Snow White runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 17 January.

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Cinderella

(reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 15 December 2015)

It’s billed as the greatest pantomime of them all, but Kathryn Rooney’s production of Cinderella for the Cliffs Pavilion in Southend ticks far too many of the wrong boxes. In its favour are the ugly sisters (David Robbins as Claudia and Martin Ramsdin as Kate). Their costumes are fantastic, their nastiness is eminently booable and Ramsdin’s false nose deserves a credit to itself.

Lauren Hall makes a petite and very charming Cinders; her Prince Charming is the strong-voiced Matthew Goodgame with Steve Lees as Dandini. Lesley Joseph, from her first entrance perched on a glittering half-moon to her relationship with Cinderella is also worth watching; you can believe in her power to make things happen. The musical numbers go with a swing with the band under Mark Aspinall.

The settings by Ian Westbrook are new for this theatre, Cinderella goes to the ball drawn by real white ponies and Elliot Nixon has devised some pretty choreography for the dancing ensemble and the children. So far, so good, but (and it’s a very big but) the story is reduced to a skeleton and the dominant (not to say domineering) presence of Brain Conley as Buttons takes over.

I was irresistibly reminded of those dire so-called pantomimes in the doldrum days of the late 60s and early 70s when a sequence of speciality acts was cobbled onto one of the traditional stories. I’m sure that Conley has an enormous following, but this extended and selfish variety turn should really have been called Buttons, not Cinderella.

Cinderella runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 10 January.

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Horrible Christmas

(reviewed at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge on 14 December 2015)

So you thought that Christmas had always been a festival of jollity and good will, did you? Wrong. Terry Deary, the Birmingham Stage Company and Derby Theatre knock a number of fallacies on their collective heads with Horrible Christmas., a seasonal addition to the Horrible Histories series.

We begin with a stage dominated by a Christmas tree with presents heaped at its foot. The young daughter of the house cannot stop herself from opening the wrapped boxes,in spite of her parents’ strictures. One of them reveals a book; “Books aren’t proper presents” this very 21st century miss declares.

Lurking in the background is Sydney Clause (Andrew Vincent), the antithesis of Santa Claus, that plump red-robed white-bearded figure so familiar to us. Deary and his Horrible Histories have perfected the delicate art of injecting information into unreceptive brains – and making it stick. So we learn that the red clothes are of recent origin and that the legendary Green Man was probably his forerunner.

But when did Christmas as we know really begin? Answer – Charles Dickens and “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. We slither back in time to the Cromwellian interregnum with an uptight Mrs Cromwell demolishing all the pagan and papist connotations of 25 December. Cue “We are the Puritans”, sung with Oliver Cromwell, his son Richard and daughter Elizabeth, all well under control by their wife and mother.

Jollity is (sort of) restored with Charles II but rigour rears its head when we go back to Henry VIII and his fifth wife Katherine Howard. “I’m wicked, I’m nasty” sings the king with soon-to-be-beheaded Katherine agreeing. This Henry is definitely from the Sid James mould. The real St Nicholas, bishop of Myra early in the fourth century, gives a dowry to a poor girl.

And so to the beginning of the story of gifts. Gold (for power), frankincense (for worship) and the myrrh of funeral rites are offered at a manger in Bethlehem. Sydney Clause, his abetting reindeer Rudolph and his sparky adversaries Shirley Holmes and Zoe Watson return to their proper spheres. The presents under the Christmas tree are now miraculously all intact.

It’s directed by Neal Foster and well designed by Jacqueline Trousdale. Matthew Scott is the composer and the extremely hard-working cast is Jo Mousley, Erika Poole, Caroline Rogers, Katy Withers, Martin Atkinson, Christopher Chilton, Jim Low and Andrew Vincent.

Horrible Christmas runs at the Corn Exchange, Cambridge until 9 January.

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Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford on 11 December 2015)

You can trust the annual Rhodes pantomime master-minded by Phil Dale (co-script writer, co-director and surely the only bearded Dame in the business under the nom de guerre Sarah Cook to fill the wide but shallow stage and spill action across the auditorium.

It’s traditional – the Principal Boy title role is filled by Katie Miller (with a cleavage) – but also quirky with its three comics – William Eaden as Jack’s brother Silly Billy, a sort of Mickey Rooney clone, and that Laurel and Hardy duo of Wingnut (Daniel Boulton) and Spanners (Dan James).

Our villain is Baron Backhander who Duncan Rutherford plays as a particularly selfish hedge fund manager, not light years away from last year’s King Ratputin. Oh yes, and there’s a proper over-sized Giant as well (George Jack). Fairy Evangeline Rainpetal (Jeanne Stacey, who is also co-director) has to work hard on Jack’s behalf.

Georgia Collins is Jill, the object of Jack’s affections and a bright lass who has the measure of her grasping father. Central to the story is Daisy the cow (Jack and Drew Gregg step out neatly). The choreography is by Katie Barker-Dale and really shows of the young dancers. Miles Forman (sporting a fetching piano-keyed scarf) and Lee Levent are the musicians.

Act Two takes us high into the skies with the Giant’s castle veiled in mist. We meet some raucous seagulls, more or less under the control of Dr Albert Ross (Gregg, who also voices the disgruntled goose). Thanks to – or should that be n spite of? – Milky Mary’s ballooning interventions on behalf of her two sons, all of course ends as it should do.

This season’s crop of farting jokes flourishes, as do an alarming number of references to testicles. We don’t really believe that Backhander will metamorphose into Candy Man, but I always think that the test of a proper pantomime villain is that we know he is down but never quite out. Even when his nemesis is a giant-slayer.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Rhodes Arts Centre, Bishop’s Stortford until 2 January.

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Dick Whittington

(reviewed at the Palace Theatre, Watford on 11 December 2015)

Andrew Pollard is the author of this year’s home-grown pantomime at the Palace Theatre, Watford. In one sense, this Dick Whittington is a pared-down production with a total cast of seven and a three-piece led by musical director Andy Ralls band perched high above Cleo Pettitt’s bright sets. But that doesn’t mean that we feel in the least bit short-changed.

Our hero is played by Joseph Prwen, escaping from Watford (where else?) and his domineering mum (Terence Frisch as Mrs Whittington) in search of fame and the fortune suggested by the myth of London’s gold-paved streets. London has been taken over by rats as the drop curtain makes clear. You can pick out Currant Cakey’s Globe Theatre, the down-river HP Sauce Bridge and the new National Rail Planning HQ (formerly the Tower of London).

Dick encounters a stray Tabby Cat, to whose feline features Aveta Chen’s delicate oriental face is admirably adapted. Her gestures are in keeping as she mimes, dances and rat-catches her way into Alderman Fitzwarren (Walter van Dyk)’s cheese emporium. Dick has by this time fallen head over heels with free-spending Alice Fitzwarren (Jill McAusland). No wonder Fitzwarren is running out of money as well as stock.

You don’t want to meddle with Erica Guyett’s Queen Rat. A thoroughly piratical person for whom apparently Fairy Bowbells (Arabella Rodrigo) is no match. One thing which this type of pantomime allows is a deeper development of each character than is often the case, and director Brigid Larmour allows proper space for this. So Dick changes gradually from someone to whom things happen to a person who solves problems.

Frisch plays one of those no-nonsense types of Dame, from the first lollipop lady entrance onwards. There’s more to van Dyk’s alderman and his relationship with the daughter he loves but who also irritates him than we are usually allowed to fathom. Not that the traditional gags are missing; the ghost scene involves a white rabbit (Welsh rarebit) and the song-sheet is, most appropriately, “Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner”. The silver and salmon costumes for the walk-down look gorgeous.

Dick Whittington runs at the Palace Theatre, Watford until 2 January.

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Snow White & Rose Red

(reviewed at the Cambridge Junction on 10 December 2015)

The fairy and folk tales collected by the brothers Grimm in the early 19th century may form the basis for many a pantomime and children’s play but they are not always as sunny – nor are the endings always happy ones – as stage and film cartoon adaptations suggest. RashDash’s riff on the story of Snow White and her sister Rose Red makes this clear.

It’s this year’s Christmas show for family audiences at the Cambridge Junction and makes the contrast between the sisters very clear. Snow White (Helen Goalen) is the gentle and loving sibling, but a girl who can dig in her moral heels when required. Rose Red (Abbi Greenland) is altogether more tomboy, not to say downright butch, itching to get out there and do something.

The trigger for their adventures is a bear (Tom Penn) who comes calling in the course of a quest and who immediately elicits Snow White’s sympathies. The sisters encounter a very small man with a very long beard (Ed Wren), who is not as nice or as helpful as he pretends.

Presiding over it all is the snow angel (Becky Wilkie all glitter and misty grey) and there’s a good use of an over-worked fairy helper cum stage manager (Laura Page). The music is by Penn, Wren and Wilkie who preside over a battery of guitars, drums and keyboard.

In the end the bear resumes his human shape as Robert and joins his soul-mate Snow White. Shorn of that straggling facial hair, the very small man turns out to be a quite personable Graham. But Rose Re makes it clear that she prefers girls. It’s all engaging enough, though it could do with considerable cutting, notably of the first half.

Snow White & Rose Red plays at the Cambridge Juntion until 31 December.

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The Sword in the Stone

(reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich on 8 December 2015)

This year’s rock-n’roll Christmas show at the New Wolsey Theatre marks a theme departure by writer and director Peter Rowe. He’s based it on the TH White version of the Arthurian legends The Sword in the Stone which describes how a young foundling developed into King Arthur, with considerable help and tutelage by the wizard Merlin.

We meet the shy, amenable Sprout (a thoroughly engaging Sandy Grigelis) as he comes through boyhood at the castle of Sir Cedric Scuttlebutt (Daniel Carter-hope) and is bullied by Sir Cedric’s clod of a son Kay (Rob Falconer). What’s left of post-Roman Britain is being constantly invaded by barbarian hordes while the seven kingdoms into which it has fractured feud as much within themselves as against what should be a common enemy.

Sir Cedric is in charge of martial training. For the romantic side of chivalry he has engaged Bernadette Broadbottom (a masculine sort of Dam as played by Graham Kent). Also in the household is Guinevere (Lucy Wells), a young lady who takes to action as enthusiastically as to learning how to be an object of courtly desire. Magic is taught by Merlin (Sean Kingsley), whose special concern is for the Sprout, though Guinevere proves herslef to be an apt pupil.

Then there’s fellow magician Morgana Le Fay (Georgina White), gleaming in purple,wielding a magic staff to equal Merlin’s and as ambitious for her thoroughly unpleasant son Mordred (Steve Simmonds) as Sir Cedric is for his. It is the series of combats both mental and physical between these two which really hold the story together.

If you’ve been to an Ipswich pantomime before, you’ll know that the cast play all the instruments – mainly brass and amplified guitars – as well as acting and singing. The noise level is high, only slightly softening for Grigelis’ first act song and the second act duet with Wells. There were many moments when my ears ached for something quieter, and without the double amplification of throat and hand-held mikes.

As is now the custom with pantomimes, one audience member was picked on as the main butt of Kent’ attentions; a second one targeted by Falconer proved less amenable – and who could blame her? This is a gimmick which really should be moth-balled. The excellent set (much use of grave traps) is by Barney George. The dragon guarding the stolen Excalibur is very well done and the animal puppets peeping out from time to time in wood and castle are a delight. The choreography is by Darragh O’Leary.

The Sword in the Stone runs at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich until 30 January.

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Cinderella

(reviewed at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge on 8 December 2015)

It my be one of the priciest Christmas shows on offer, but this year’s Cambridge Arts Theatre Cinderella gives you good value for your money. The script is by Al Morley and Matt Crosby and is directed by David Grindley with choreography by Kevan Allen, costume design by Sue Simmerling and musical direction by John Donovan.

The story follows the traditional path, with a strong pair of almost look-alike Principal Boys in the shape of Laura Barton’s Prince Charming and Jennifer Potts’ Dandini. Both have strong voices as well as playing with just the right source of masculine conviction; you can believe in their heir-to-the-throne and adopted-brother relationship.

Rosemary Ashe makes an engaging Fairy Godmother, a gold-glittering Edna Everage-spectacled fey on the brink of retirement, with a no-nonsense attitude to her magic and the operatically trained voice to go with it. Suzie Mathers is the sweet-voiced, pretty and gentle-natured heroine, though her kitchen-scene dismissal of the love declaration by Steven Butler’s Dandini suggests a streak of ruthlessness.

Her step-sisters are Jusin-Lee Jones (taking over from an indisposed Jonathan D Ellis) as Kim and Daniel Goode as Khloé. Jones is the tall, spiky one (with the longest legs in the business) while Goode plays the tubby would-be-beauty; both are thoroughly nasty, which is just as they should be. Butler, for my taste, never quite achieved the right degree of rapport with the audience which Buttons needs to have. Richard Earl is suitably harassed as Baron Hardup.

Both the adult dancers and the juvenile ones do justice to Allen’s choreography and look well in the colourful palette of Simmerling’s costumes. Cinderella goes to the ball in a shimmer of turquoise crinoline, riding in a coach drawn into the skies by a white winged Pegasus. The effect earned a well-deserved cheer. Magic, after all, is what a pantomime should give its audience – and this one succeeds.

Cinderella runs at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge until 17 |January.

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Jack and the Beanstalk

(reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds on 6 December 2015)

This year’s Theatre Royal pantomime may have a traditional story but writer Chris Hannon, director Karen Simpson and designer Rebecca Lee have given it some intriguing twists. The action is set in the 1970s, when men’s trousers were flared, girls wore miniskirts and hippy flower-power dominated. So Wendy (Leonie Spilsbury), our magical guide, is flower-wreathed and maxi-gowned.

Jack is Oliver Mawdsley, shyly in love with hot-panted Jill (Louise Olley), the daughter of Elvis-clone Duke Box; Chris Clarkson sports an enormous quiff and a glittering white outfit. Demanding money with menaces (children taken for baking in lieu) is Ghastly Gordon. Alan Mehdizadeh is certainly a chef you wouldn’t want anywhere near your own kitchen.

Under his ladle and rolling-pin is Sue Chef (Nancy Hill), who doesn’t really want to be as nasty as her boss would like. But Duke Box has no spare cash and Tina Trumpington (James Parkes), Jack’s mother, has even less. Cue the sale of Daisy the cow, a bovine with a satin-udder who captures the audience heart with her first hoof step.

Act Two sees our hero confronting David Zachary’s Giant, a marvellous contraption of swollen belly, long long arms and legs and a ridiculously small head crowned with a minute top hat. This is where we meet Dottee (Spilsbury), the Giant’s seen-it-all-before wife. Kung fu expert Jill is a better match for Gordon than Jack, let alone the other space-travelling mortals.

I failed to warm to Parkes’ Dame, a somewhat rough characterisation, though the flour scene in the Trumpington windmill is a good variant of the traditional slop scene; this windmill boasts an engaging puppet mouse, and I think the youngsters in the audience would have liked to see more of him. The rock’n’roll dance numbers (Julia Cave is the choreographer) are fast-paced and both the Act One Elvis “Megamix” and the Act Two “Cooking up the bits” (a variation on “Puttin’ on the Ritz” are stand-outs.

Jack and the Beanstalk runs at the Bury St Edmunds Theatre Royal until 10 January.

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Aladdin

(reviewed at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester on 5 December 2015)

The Mercury’s director Daniel Buckroyd has co-written the script for this year pantomime Aladdin with Fine Time Fontayne. Buckroyd has ensured that there are some new elements to the familiar story. For example, Abanazar (Ignatius Anthony) is a disgruntled revenge-seeking former court magician and Wishee Washee (Dale Superville) is undergoing work experience with the palace police (Laura Curnick as Pong and Simon Pontin as Ping).

Curnick and Pontin also play the beehive-headed Spirit of the Ring and a magisterial Genie of the Lamp respectively. Superville is a Mercury audience favourite and quickly has the audience on his side. Antony Stuart-Hicks makes a commanding if slightly abrasive Widow Twanky as she tries to keep dreamy apple-scrunching Aladdin (Glenn Adamson) in check. Tim Freeman is the Emperor.

As heroines go, Sarah Moss makes Princess Jasmine a girl with sirit. Once she wriggles out of the paper-bag which her father insists she wears to hide her beauty from the common folk, she sets about getting her own way in no uncertain terms and proves a far more dangerous opponent for Abanazar than Aladdin manages to be.

Musical director Richard Reeday has a nice way with tunes both familiar and unfamiliar – “Three little maids from school” is particularly enjoyable in its new context. Juliet Shillingford’s designs and Charlie Morgan’s choreography are attractive and keep the action flowing. There is a real sense of characterisation and commitment to the performances; this is a pantomime for both the youngest and the oldest theatre-goers.

Aladdin runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester until 10 January.

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Aladdin

(reviewed at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford on 5 December 2015)

One From The Heart is again the producer, in association with Chelmsford City Theatre, of this year’s pantomime. It’s the ever-popular Aladdin with Liam Ross-Mills in the title role. His somewhat naïve quest for the riches which will enable him to obtain the hand of the Princess Jasmine (Gabriela Gregorian) is, of course, triggered by his encounter with Shaun Chambers’ Abanazar.

Last year’s Peter Pan is this year’s Wishee Washee – Samuel Parker. He establishes an instant rapport with the children in the audience, abetted by Tim McArthur’s Widow Twankey. Then there’s David Tarkenter as the Emperor, all bombast and fluster as he seeks to find a wealthy prince to wed his feisty daughter and restore his crumbling finances.

The immortals are Millie O’Connell as a no-nonsense Slave of the Ring and Neal Wright, a commanding presence with a voice to match, as the Genie of the Lamp. Damian Czarnecki’s choreography is bright and puts the ensemble and juvenile dancers and those youngsters playing Abanazar’s minions through their energetic paces.

In Act One, the slop scene in the laundry has acquired a couple of novel twists (and slips) while Aladdin’s magic carpet journey to Abanazar’s lair elicits a proper response of gasps as he swoops over the stage and orchestra pit. Tim Curran is the musical director; Simon Aylin both wrote the script and directed it.

Aladdin runs at the Civic Theatre, Chelmsford until 3 January.

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The Sleeping Beauty

(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 4 December 2015)

There are a number of commercial producers of pantomimes; not all of them have the production values of Eastbourne-based Chris Jordan. This year sees The Sleeping Beauty trapped by the vengeful Carabosse in Stevenage. The sets and costumes (Shelley Claridge) are colourful and there’s some excellent choreography by Philip Joel.

We begin with Fairy Fortywinks (Nicola Bryan) confronting the much more powerful Carabosse (Wendi Peters), an immortal with grievances. Lots of them.King Clarence (Paul Bentley) is missing his late wife and seeking a suitable prince to marry his daughter Belle (Daniella Piper). She doesn’t take kindly to being cosseted either by her father or by Nellie Night Nurse ((Paul Laidlaw).

Laidlaw is an experienced Dame, of the cuddly rather than abrasive variety. Son Chester (Aidan O’Neill) is the Court Jester and, of course, secretly in love with Belle. That doesn’t make Prince Valiant (Gregor Stewart)’s task any easier as he goes in search of a suitable bride. The “Love me” duet is an attractive number.

Carabosse has a team of helpers, and very nasty they are too. There’s an attractive duet for Belle and Valiant before the spectacular final to the first act. In Act Two we have Nellie’s famous strip-tease as well as a time machine (not a million miles from Dr Who’s police-box) to take everyone forward a hundred years.

The Sleeping Beauty runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 24 January.

There’s a dragon in the ghost scene, which makes a nice change, and at least one spectacular exit through the orchestra pit – James Cleeve’s domain. Innovations are carefully blended with the expected traditional – such as the kitchen scene. And Fairy Fortywinks may keep on dropping off at crucial moments – but she has a winning way with her trumpet.

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Santa Claus and the Magical Christmas Journey

(reviewed at the Watford Colosseum on 4 December 2015)

What do you do for a Christmas show if your children are just that bit too young to enjoy a traditional, full-length pantomime. The Watford Colosseum found a solution last year, and the same team is back with a follow-up show. Santa Claus and the Magical Christmas Journey takes place a year after last year’s adventure.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer has been safely corralled. The trouble this time that ever-helpful bear Muffin (who tracked down Rudolph when he went missing) has been sidelined in favour of santa-nav (the voice of Russell Grant). If your sat-nav is as provoking as mine, you can guess that things aren’t going to progress smoothly for Christmas gift deliveries.

Santa (Paul Aitchison) has two helper elves. Charlie (Dan Burgess) is the inquisitive one who Kara (Hannah Nuttall) more-or-less keeps in check. The sleigh in Rebecca Stoll’s staging is a fine thing on a revolve and there are some excellent lighting and special effects (the snow is a particular favourite).

There’s a lot of opportunity for singing along and some subtle messages as well. it’s an excellent introduction to the magic of theatre and the small carpeted and gently lit studio space means that there is nothing frightening for the smallest ones. Just a touch of magic – and we all need that at Christmas.

Santa Claus and the Magical Christmas Journey is at the Watford Colosseum until 24 December.

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Aladdin

(reviewed at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch on 4 December 2015)

It can be tricky for a theatre to decide on which traditional story is to be the basis for this year’s pantomime. One for the girls? or one for the boys? Aladdin was a favourite last year, and here it is once again winning the popularity stakes.

Matt Devit is the director for this year’s Hornchurch show with a script by Nicholas Pegg, designs by Mark Walters and original music and arrangements by Carol Sloman. This is a team which knows its audience and gives it a clever blend of twists on tradition to hold child and adult attention alike.

In a career first, Fred Broom plays Widow Twankey. He has clear ideas about how the Dame role should be played and has eye make-up which looks like a tribute to the 19th century’s favourite Dame Dan Leno as well as a nice line in outrageous frocks. Twankey also has a running “Chinese proverb says…” joke.

Starting it all off is Sam Pay’s Abanazar, as slinky and slimy a villain as you could wish to encounter in or our of his green follow-spot. That endangered species, the female Principal Boy, is represented by thigh-slapping, heel-booted Naomi Bullock. She has just the right degree of swagger which the part demands.

Rachel Nottingham doubles Princess Jasmine (not a lady to be walked over) and the Essex-girl Slave of the Ring. The Genie of the Lamp and the oh-so-obsequious Vizier are doubled by Thomas Sutcliffe. But of all the characters, it is Wishee Washee who the youngsters really take to their hearts. This year it’s Matthew Quinn’s turn to keep the audience returning his greetings and be the fall-guy at his mother’s laundry.

The Emperor is Callum Hughes – and look out for the Yeti once the snowy regions of Tibet are encountered. Dan de Cruz leads the three-piece band; the “we’re okay” number is particularly catchy and the choreography of Donna Berlin and Hannah Harris fills the stage with movement.

Aladdin runs at the Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch until 9 January.

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