The re-established tradition of a pantomime at the London Palladium goes from strength to strength with this fourth outing. Julian Clary is firmly in his element in the role of ring master at a circus which, for reasons I can’t remember but don’t really matter anyway, needs to secure the services of the three bears to provide a show-stopping act and save the circus from being taken over by the evil ringmaster, Paul O’Grady. Although on the night I saw it that role was admirably understudied by Christopher Howell who goes up in my estimation because his CV says he was in two of my favourite recent musicals – Betty Blue Eyes and Made in Dagenham.
The Barnum-esque setting gives legitimacy to a device often used on panto whereby various speciality acts get shoe-horned into the plot. With a circus as the set this technique is made easy. This is how we can legitimately end up with the truly spectacular motor cycle stunt work of Peter Pavlov and his team, who I last saw in Cirque Berserk.
The official story of Goldilocks and the three bears is largely dispensed with in the course of a single musical number. You could legitimately argue that this show has become so far removed from its origins that it’s not really a panto at all. It has become its own genre, in which the plot of whichever panto is largely irrelevant. What does remain, though, are some of the key panto ingredients. Notably the ‘tell him that’ routine, in which an increasingly complicated and potentially rude tongue twister is passed back and forth by a go-between.
The Palladium panto is also establishing its own traditions. Every year Nigel Havers is fighting for his right to be in the show at the cost of his dignity, a part he plays to absolute perfection. He’s like the guest star on a Morecambe and Wise show. And Gary Wilmot has an impressive line in patter songs. Last year it was one which included the names of every tube station. This year, a medley of snatches (sometimes just a single word) from numerous musical theatre standards. Outstanding.
Whilst it lovely to see the great Janine Duvitski, she is a little under used as mummy bear. Matt Baker is a revelation as Joey the clown, not only displaying a range of great circus skills but also having a warm and confident stage presence. Paul Zerdin’s vent act remains the benchmark for such things, the real brilliance being in the puppetry skills his uses to give expression to his characters.
Rising above it all, complete with outrageous double entendres, is Julian Clary. His costume budget alone must be more than that of most entire pantos, although he faces strong competition from the circus-style set which as glitzy and colourful as you could wish. His laid back style belies the skill he has in landing a line or a glance with devastating aplomb. As ever he comments on proceedings from outside the show, with waspish asides about contracts, the CVs of other cast members and getting his cab home. He is totally in his element and it is difficult to imagine a Palladium panto without him.