Review – Aladdin at the Churchill Theatre Bromley ****

Aladdin front curtain

A marvelous Christmas present arrived at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley in the shape of Christopher Biggins. TV presenters and ex boy/girl band members are all very well, but a proper panto deserves a proper panto star, which is what Biggins undoubtedly is.

His is a twinkly presence as Widow Twankey, appearing in a series of costumes and wigs ranging from the extravagant to the bizarre. He is effortlessly at ease with the audience. Indeed his first ‘scene’ is not really part of the show, just an informal chat identifying school groups, brownies and those celebrating birthdays. Throughout the show he totters about the stage and is both hilarious and brings a little vulnerability to the part.

His comedy side kicks are Rikki Jay as Wishee and Max Fulham as Washee, taking what is usually a single part and giving us two comics. Rikki Jay is the official comic, perhaps a little old school, but armed with all the usual jokes and clearly a highly experienced performer who knows exactly how to land a line and control the audience. Max Fulham is a hugely talented ventriloquist, giving life to his monkey Gordon, a delightfully cute but knowing character and, even more impressively, a pedal bin (whose mum is a wheelie bin and whose dad is a skip!). The three leads seem to enjoy each others’ performances. And despite the tendency in panto to include carefully rehearsed fluffs and corpsing, I think we saw a couple of genuine moments, especially in the ‘short sleeved shirt, not a long sleeved shirt’ sketch.

As Aladdin, Yazdan Qafouri comes to us from a stint in the Take That musical The Band. He looks the part, moves well and is a great singer. He and Emily Hawgood as Princess Jasmine have perhaps the toughest job because as the main leads of the story they have to carry the plot but have little else to do apart from sing a few songs. But they both manage to convey some passion and spark, both for their characters and each other. Indeed both Hawgood and Emily Beth Harrington (Scheherazade) play strong women who know what they want and how to get it.

In terms of story, those more familiar with the Disney version, will find two problems. First, that it takes a long while to get going and second, when it does and the genie finally appears, he’s not the wise cracking bundle of charisma that Robin Williams invented, but an oversize puppet thrust from the wings on a big stick.

Head baddie is Ryan O’Gorman as ‘have a banana’ Abanazar. He’s just frightening enough for the younger children in the packed audience and wins my vote for a great opening to the second act with his performance of You Know My Name, the Bond song from Casino Royale.

A special mention to The Twins FX who provide the special effect of the flying carpet, which is just captivating. And to the children from Laura Bruce Dance Academy who make a lovely addition to the big dance numbers and provide great support to the talented adult ensemble. Also to the band in the pit. Although with some exceptions I wasn’t wowed by the song choices, it really makes a difference to have a live band and they sound just great.


Review – Snow White at The London Palladium *****

The Palladium panto is establishing itself as a highlight on the theatrical calendar, with 2017’s Dick Whittington earning an Olivier award. The cast has become something of an institution in the process with Julian Clary, Nigel Havers, Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and West End (and now Broadway) star Charlie Stemp returning. They are joined this year by Danielle Hope in the title role and Strictly Come Dancing stars Vincent and Flavia as a speciality act.

The show itself is routine panto stuff, with jokes and routines very like those to be seen, for example, at the Orchard Theatre’s Aladdin. This is partly because a proper panto requires a certain adherence to tradition (even when it comes to the jokes!). Also because the shows share the same production company – including many of the creatives.

But the Palladium panto is head and shoulders above the rest because of the cast. Dawn French is beloved by the nation and this warmth transcends the booing she obviously gets as the wicked queen. Nigel Havers once again allows himself to be ribbed mercilessly as he tries (in vain) to secure a decent part for himself in the show, this year hoping to be allowed on as Julian Clary’s understudy. Gary Wilmot has effortless stage presence and brilliant technique, showing off his patter skills with a fiendish G&S song with the words being the names of almost every star to have performed at the Palladium. Paul Zerdin and his puppet Sam bring fresh energy and fun to the standard ventriloquist act, brilliantly engaging the audience. Danielle Hope is back on home ground where she first found fame playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and becomes a delightfully enchanting Snow White.

Charlie Stemp, meanwhile, plays along gamely as the but of jokes about his inability to remember lines and his up-coming role as Bert in the West End revival of Mary Poppins. But his star quality shines through in the musical numbers where his athletic dancing ability is outstanding. He even bravely joins in with the  speciality gymnastic act as they hurl themselves around the stage and over a wooden horse. I assume someone paid-up the extra insurance premium!

The undoubted star though, is Julian Clary, still mining comedy gold from withering put-downs and near the knuckle double entendres. In his task of out-shining everyone on stage he is considerably aided by his outstanding and outrageous costumes which are like pieces of scenery in their own right.

We are also privileged to have a line-up of seven dwarves played by actors, not children as in some versions, a large ensemble and a great band in the pit who somehow this year seemed to have escaped Mr Clary’s attentions.

Snow White is at The London Palladium until 13 January 2019.



Review – Aladdin at the Orchard Theatre

The panto at Dartford Orchard Theatre starts with a bang. Literally. No gradual dimming of the lights and gentle mentions to turn off your mobile phone! Having got our attention it proceeds to hold it across the whole show with a succession of spectacular moments and perfectly executed comedy routines.

The big name is Marti Pellow who plays the baddie, Abanazar, nemesis to our hero Aladdin. He exudes menace and plays the part dead straight, as it should be, despite the sometimes chaotic comic scenes going on around him. He looks the part, he moves like a snake and sounds devilish.

Comedy is provided by Ricky K as Wishee Washee and David Robbins as Widow Twankey. Ricky K is a bundle of boundless energy and enthusiasm who delivers the requisite panto jokes with enough of a twinkle to sell even the oldest of them with conviction. David Robbins is a brilliant Dame, making every entrance in a different costume (all of which he designs) and wig (all of which he makes), each more outrageous than the last. I should mention at this point that all the comedy is very family friendly with only a couple of double entendres and some mild innuendo, so this a proper, traditional family panto and great way to introduce children to the magical qualities of theatre.

It was a pleasure to see again Landi Oshinowo as the glamorous Empress of China, having seen her this time last year in the musical Big Fish with Kelsey Grammer. Alexis Gerred does a fine job as Aladdin, with an extremely likeable stage presence in a part which can so easily be bland but which he makes entertaining and watchable. Stephanie Elstob is a beautiful Princess Jasmine, the subject of Aladdin’s desires, but struggles to inject much personality into an under written part. Where she comes into her own, though, is in the big dance routine in Act Two. Lucy Van Gasse, however, as Scheherazade (effectively Aladdin’s fairy godmother) shows what can be done with a small part, bringing her own sparkle to the sparkly effects which greet her entrances.

It is slightly disappointing that the music is pre-recorded as, although it sounds great, the presence of a live band is always better. But the money saved in the pit appears to have ended up on the stage. The show is a visual spectacle. The sets are beautiful and there are some amazing moments, such as a stage-filling King Kong (don’t ask why or how he ends up in Aladdin!), a breathtaking magic carpet ride, a stunning 3D flight and a giant serpent. All of which contribute to this being quite the most spectacular pantomime.

Review – Cinderella

Julian Clary and Nigel Havers in Cinderella at The London Palladium
Julian Clary and Nigel Havers in Cinderella at The London Palladium

With a star-studded cast the running gag in Cinderella is Nigel Havers butting into scenes asking if he can have more lines. A consequence of all the big names is that by the time they’ve all had chance to do their thing, there’s not so much time left for the plot.

But this is more than made up for by the lavish spectacle. A Palladium Panto is a thing of legend for most people or, at best, a distant memory for others. In its day it attracted stars like Julie Andrews, Cliff Richard and Ronnie Corbett. So this revival of the tradition has a lot to live up to. It appears to have done so, with another panto – Dick Whittington – already confirmed for December. Tickets are now on sale!

Spectacular, fun and looking like a Disney show, there wasn’t a space on the costumes for another crystal. The show sparkled and was full of stars. Julian Clary’s costumes were as outrageous as the man himself. Paul O’Grady as the wicked stepmother was so convincing that I am sure younger members of the audience believe he was a woman. Lee Mead singing ‘Any Dream Will Do’ brought back many happy memories of when I saw him in Joseph. His voice was just as enthralling as ever and wowed the crowd.

Amanda Holden performed her duties as Fairy Godmother with sparkle and elegance. The younger members of the audience were really wowed Sam the puppet, which kept them entertained throughout the show. But the highlight for many was the flying horses and carriage, which was definitely a moment to remember. My admiration must go to Nigel Havers who squeezed every drop of empathy from the audience in a relatively small part. His desperate need for more lines made us hope throughout the show that he was going to get a starring moment. And he did!

Cult favourite Count Arthur Strong, as Cinderella’s father, was warm and likeable whilst still retaining his peculiar and unique world view.

The first panto at the Palladium for 30 years, this certainly provided a fantastic and special night out.

Review – Peter Pan with Craig Revel Horwood

If you’ve seen Craig Revel Horwood as his most famous character – that of ‘evil’ judge ‘Craig’ on Strictly Come Dancing – you’ll know he commits fully to every part he plays. That’s also true of his Captain Hook in Peter Pan. It’s great to see a proper star turn in Bromley’s panto after years of, albeit competent, performances from ‘stars’ billed as ‘from CITV’ or similar.

The sets are impressive – more West End than the simple glitter and canvas efforts usually deployed – and a strong supporting cast gel together very well. Paul Burling was a confident and funny Smee who got the audience just where he wanted them. Outstanding vocal support came  from Rachel Spry as Mimi the Magical Mermaid. I’d also like to mention a great turn (on light-up roller skates no less) from Isobel Hathaway as Tinker Bell.

So it’s all over know and Christmas has really ended. Next year’s panto (Sleeping Beauty) only runs in December 2017 – last performance is New Year’s Eve –  so don’t delay or you’ll find all the available dates are behind you!