Review – Pantoland at the London Palladium ****

The Palladium panto was re-established as a Christmas tradition in 2016. Since then the few remaining elements of plot or character have been gradually removed each year so we’re now left with a kind variety show. This is not a criticism. Clearly the producers have realised that they will get best value from the likes of Julian Clary by giving them as much time as possible to do what they’re best at, without burdening them (and us) with mundane things like a story.

This year we are treated for the first time to the star being an international icon – Donny Osmond. No time is wasted in getting him on stage as he opens the show. There’s no doubt there is something quite magical about being in the beloved and world famous Palladium and hearing the name Donny Osmond announced as the curtains open to reveal the man himself.

The rest of the cast is comprised of what has become in effect the Palladium Panto Repertory Company. Gary Wilmot is the dame and his patter song naming all London’s tube stations (yes – including the new ones on the Elizabeth line) is spectacular. You feel you are witnessing something really special as well as amazing. Nigel Havers is the butt of jokes about his age and not really having a part in the show. Ventriloquist Paul Zerdin is a class act who delivers not only some great laughs but also a range of impressive set pieces including a brilliant moment when his puppet Sam is left in the hands (literally) of Donny Osmond. Cue carefully rehearsed mistakes and corpsing with resultant crowd pleasing hilarity.

Song and dance numbers are left in the more than capable hands of Sophie Issacs and Jac Yarrow, with support from the famous Tiller Girls.

There is, of course, one more person to mention. Julian Clary can, and does, turn the most apparently innocent phrases into complete filth. For example, “I’ve never done Aladdin” and “Put your hand up (pause). In the air!” In the most extravagant costumes he parades about the stage picking on either members of the audience or the cast with waspish remarks and put-downs which in turn bring the house down.

The cast appear to be having a really good time. In less skilled hands this could leave the audience feeling left out of the joke. Not here. The casual mayhem and supposed mistakes only work because this is a slick and hugely professional show that knows exactly what it’s doing and mines every comic opportunity to maximum effect through deft technique and spot-on timing.

My review is missing the fifth star only because, as a Palladium panto fan, I have seen most of this before. Don’t get me wrong, I love the company and wouldn’t want to lose any of them. But the addition of Donny Osmond created the opening for some fresh content and more of this would be welcome. Who knows which international superstar will be joining in the fun next year?

Pantoland is at the London Palladium until 9 January 2022.

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Orchard Theatre, Dartford ****

Christopher Biggins arrives on stage on a mobility scooter. Is he to be confined to this transport following his knee operation earlier in the year? Oh no he isn’t! He is soon tottering about the stage in a succession of outrageous frocks and wigs as Dame Trot, mother to our hero Jack (Pearce Barron – showing formidable energy and skill in some big song and dance numbers) and comic Rikki Jay’s Silly Simon. Jay has to both warm the audience up and keep them there, whilst others deal with such mundane issues as the plot. This is he does with consumate skill born of considerable experience. His shopping trolley and lip sync routines are a highlight.

Biggins (the ‘Christopher’ seems hardly necessary anymore) needs almost no introduction of course, having long been elevated from lovable comic actor to full-blown national treasure. He plainly loves theatre and loves a panto audience, which ensures he gets a super warm reception. There was a trend in panto to cast presenters from children’s TV in leading roles. Many of them, of course, have theatre school training so could perform well enough, but having seasoned professionals in charge like Biggins and Jay, makes such a difference. That’s not to criticise Channel 5 presenter Kiera-Nicole who plays Princess Aprricot. She does a fine job, but it’s good to have the old pros on board as well!

The first character we meet, in traditional green light and follow-spot, is Fleshcreep, the giant’s henchman. David O’Mahony combines the required sneering and snarling with just enough evidence of humanity for the part to work. His biog also makes the programme worth paying for on its own!

A bonus with the Orchard pantos is they always seem to like to include some spectacular sets or effects, courtesy of The Twins FX who specialise in amazing visual effects. This time we get a huge giant walking about the stage and the most terrifying giant rat. I’m sure there will be some nightmares about that amongst the younger children in the audience.

This is a great show which the audience absolutely loved. There’s a decent amount of story to drive things along, combined with quite delightful and sometimes spectacular sets, in particular the front cloth and the staircase for the final ‘walk-down’ curtain call scene.

Jack and the Beanstalk is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until 2 January 2022.

Review – Sleeping Beauty, Churchill Theatre, Bromley *****

We’ve got a couple of proper names at the Churchill this year. There’s the always good value Bonnie Langford and eveyone’s favourite Joseph, Lee Mead. Along with Myra Dubois as the wicked fairy, Lloyd Hollett as Muddles, the Court Jester, Claudillea Holloway as the princess and Joelle Moses as the Queen, this combination proves to be an outstanding overall cast and certainly the best I can recall.

Claudillea Holloway has a beaming smile and happy face. She looks so genuinely happy to be the princess and her voice is quite beautiful, which she gets to show off well. As her mum, Queen Voluptua, Joelle Moses exudes a regal authority and knocks out some terrific notes of her own. She’s been Motormouth Maybelle in a production of Hairspray and I can totally see her owning that part.

Lloyd Hollett as Muddles is our comic guide to proceedings. I’ve heard a lot of panto jokes over the years, but he really made me laugh. He also quickly built a rapport with the audience, slipping in a few jokes for the grown-ups along the way. But the clever thing about this production is that it worked so effortlessly on both adult and child levels. Hollett also has a quite outstanding line in patter songs which are not only funny but amazing feats of memory and brilliant performance technique. In the first of these he list the names of all the comics who have inspired him, to the tune of the Can Can. Almost everyone gets a mention, from Jo Brand to Tony Hancock. I’d have loved it even more if he could have squeezed in a name check for Bromley’s own Tom Allen!

Lee Mead has the toughest job of the night.  – as do all romantic male leads in pantos. All that’s required of a panto prince is to be in love with the princess. He does, though, manage to have fun with his history of playing Joseph and delivers some great song and dance numbers.

Myra Dubois is the baddie in this production, as Carabosse, the wicked fairy who causes the princess to fall into her deep sleep from which our prince must awaken her. Dubois makes the best panto baddie I’ve seen, in a succession of frocks, gowns and put-downs. Pantos love to stick in carefully rehearsed ‘mistakes’ and consequent corpsing by the cast, but there was a instant with Dubois when I’m not sure if we didn’t see a real moment. Either way, it brought the house down.

As the good fairy Lilac Bonnie Langford goes well beyond the usual restrictions of the role (typically panto fairies come on in a flash and are off thirty seconds later having delivered a plot update). Bonnie is so twinkly and sparkly that I swear she would twinkle and sparkle just as much even if her costume wasn’t covered in spangles and sequins. She also gets to dance and sing – which is where she excels. When Bonnie is on the stage there’s no doubt she’s the star.

Thank goodness we also get a real live band in the pit. There’s just three of them but they fill the place with sound. Their balance with the singers was a little off at times, making the vocals hard to hear, but that maybe just me as it improved during the show, which is probably just me becoming attuned to the sound.

Thanks to Covid we have no children in the cast. Neither are any dragged up on stage from the audience in the final front-of-cloth scene. For me these are plus points. It also means we get more stage time from the principals, which with this cast is all to the good.

Sleeping Beauty is that the Churchill Theatre Bromley until 2 January 2022.