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Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

Launch photo: Paul Johnson

Sublime in 2019 to disaster in 2021!

Lame, Tame and almost devoid of any atmosphere. This year’s panto review from Croydon…

What a difference a year or two makes.

Twenty-four months ago The Fairfield Halls brilliantly sprang back into life in the venue’s concert Hall and presented Imagine Theatre’s digitally designed set as Cinderella thrilled its audiences with a little help from its stars Tim Vine and Ore Oduba. This week Imagine Theatre opens Beauty and the Beast but not in the luxury of the concert hall, the pantomime has been moved back into the Ashcroft Theatre – complete with its traditional proscenium arch. This time the stars are CBBC’s Dick and Dom as well as Derek Griffiths – arguably all from yesteryear. What’s more, this year’s pantomime – which lacked a plethora of expected special effects –  just isn’t very funny. In fact, compared to the other pantomimes I’ve been to in the last fortnight, tonight’s festivities in Croydon were second rate.

It all started upon arrival at so-called press night. I fully understand that the new Omicron variant halted any hopes of a potential press reception but not to have any kind of welcome at all was just plain weird. In addition, the lack of any kind of show programme (until I was sent a digital version via email two hours after the event) and the staff that were there behaving like a chaotic event of some kind had just occurred – didn’t kick the evening off in style. Two years ago I couldn’t move without bumping into a smiling producer or venue manager. This year, they’re nowhere to be seen.

Poor Dick and Dom – whom I interviewed at the launch – were full of energy and really trying their best. But when the script isn’t good enough you can only go so far. I remember Derek Griffiths (whom I also interviewed) from Play School and Play Away before seeing him as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang opposite Michael Ball at the London Palladium, and, ironically, as the Candelabra in the West End’s original Beauty and the Beast from Disney. In December 2021 he does tend to look like he’s merely turned up for work. But it’s really not our stars’ faults. I’m sure Ant and Dec would gabble or talk over each other’s punchlines without good direction.

The trouble is Croydon’s Fairfield Halls is a big deal and audiences will expect to be blown away – just like they were two years ago. I’m very sorry to say that the ATG venues, with all the inventiveness and tradition all mashed up together win hands-down.

Of the rest of the cast, the lack of any children onstage this year is something to overcome, and with an ensemble of just three (plus Fairy Fairfield!), you’re always going to struggle. I need to bite my lip a little here for fear of getting personal but suffice to say I overheard other members of the audience saying that they thought Nic James’ Benedict Bourbon brought the best-drawn character to the party (he’s the Gaston figure who chases after Belle.)

I really hope that BH Live – the company that runs the Fairfield Halls – is prepared to grovel on all fours to bring back the snubbed Evolution Pantomimes who were breaking the venue’s box office records before the venue mysteriously closed for three years. We need the brilliance of Paul Hendy’s writing and direction. Sorry, Eric, your panto has gone to Potts!



Image: L-R: Anton Du Beke (Buttons), Oonagh Cox (Cinderella) and Rosemary Ashe (Fairy Godmother) – Cinderella at Richmond Theatre. Photo: Benjamin Mole

You enter the auditorium dazzled by the fairy-tale front cloth ahead. And, from the moment the band strikes up, the show goes on scintillating right up to Cinderella’s wedding and the playout. If you don’t want to leave that’s partly because it’s cold outside. More importantly, you’ve been having such an enjoyable time inside. Cinderella is possibly everyone’s favourite panto. Well, it is mine. And this is a good one. It was a stroke of genius inviting Anton Du Beke to head the cast at Richmond: his affable and endearing manner makes him a natural for the role of Buttons.

I was lucky enough to see the show at an early preview. The previous day Du Beke was miles away in Elstree adjudicating back-to-back episodes of Strictly Come Dancing before making the fifty-mile journey to Richmond for a matinee and then this, only his third, performance. How does he manage to keep so buoyant? Ah, the elixir of Dr Theatre! If there was an occasional fluff, it was hard to tell if it was, as I suspect, genuine, or a carefully rehearsed gag. Either way it was used to good comic effect. I particularly liked the way he milks the audience by means of a subtle back-handed flick of his wrist – a repeated gimmick which pays dividends as the evening wears on.

But this is also an ensemble show, brilliantly coordinated in Stewart Nicholls’, as always, meticulous direction. Everyone sings and dances impeccably and enters enthusiastically into the fun. Rosemary Ashe, fresh from her recent, triumphant Sally Adams in Call Me Madam, makes the perfect Fairy Godmother: glamorous yet homely; everyone’s favourite no-nonsense aunt. Her comic timing is a joy. Oonagh Cox, in her first starring role, is a delightful Cinders: a triple threat as a strong actor-singer-dancer and surely destined to be a valuable addition to the UK’s musicals scene. Edward Chitticks’ full-throated Prince is as charming as his name and faux Eighteenth Century attire certainly sets off his good looks to best advantage.

As the Ugly Sisters, Bobby Delaney and Darren Bennett (although wasn’t it a teensy bit unkind to name them Beatrice and Eugenie?) look hideously stunning in way-OTT couture creations – a different wig for each millinery concoction. Three days prior to opening, Bennett had replaced another actor as Beatrice, but you’d never have known as the two actors work like a long-standing double act – and are two of the meanest ‘Sisters’ I’ve seen. Jonny Weston brings his own special brand of comic ineptness to the often-thankless role of Dandini.

In my youth, panto audiences were accustomed to stages spilling over with singers and dancers. These days, as here, we are down to just six. Thanks to Alan Burkitt’s imaginative choreography, however, Thomas Charles, Tom Fletcher, Nancy Harris, Natasha Scrase, Rosie Southall and Laura Swan manage to fill the stage with cheerful, swirling movement. Having Du Beke in the cast means there must be a big number to show off, both himself and the dancers. Sure enough, it comes appropriately in the Ball scene when Buttons, now in top hat, bow tie and tails, catches a cane Astaire-style and the dancers swap their old-fashioned glad rags for contemporary evening gowns. The result is an enchanting highlight of the production.

Until very recently, second houses provided panto comics with the opportunity to introduce sophisticated and/or blue humour into the script. In the interval, some of us reflected on the extent to which political correctness has affected writers of family entertainment. Panto humour was never very subtle, but you can have one fart gag too many – though, to be fair, the kids seem to love it. It is interesting to note, however, a greater and healthier reliance on verbal comedy involving accumulated misunderstandings and repetition of the ‘Old Macdonald’ variety.

Cinderella more than any other panto, needs to look and sound good. The sets and costumes here are fresh and attractive. The work of Ramon Van Stee (Sound) and Richard G Jones (Lighting) is first-rate work, as is that of Gary Hind and Pierce Tee who are responsible for the musical side of the show.

Oh, and the glittering coach and white ponies are gorgeous, darling!

It is so good to see pantomimes back in the theatre after a two-year absence. With such a promising start to the festive season in Surrey, one can only pray that the current pandemic won’t discourage audiences from attending this and other Christmas shows. It was great to shed the years and join in the chorusing along with the enthusiastic youngsters in the audience.

We had – cliché spoiler – a ball. Bravo to everyone involved!

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Photo: Ian Olsson

How the sound of hundreds of screaming (and I do mean ‘screaming’) children has been missed – even for a single year. That’s arguably why the famous ghost scene has survived all these years. Put three people on a bench and have them totally unaware of the approaching ghost, and the auditorium erupts. And so it should. It’s a free license to make as much noise as physically possible. ‘It’s behind you!’ is the yell, as if their very lives depended on it.

The biggest pantomimes in the UK come under a new production name post-lockdown. Qdos is replaced with Crossroads; everything else remains the same apparently. My first venture in my 3-ATG panto week is at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre, and it was packed to the rafters last night (also good to see considering the current state of affairs). Anton du Beke’s Buttons beckons in Richmond tonight followed by Shane Richie as Dick Whittington tomorrow in Wimbledon. But before all that, Gok Wan, Harriet Thorpe and Aaron James thrill Surrey’s audiences in the Woking area. And ‘thrill’ is probably the best description for it.

I would have given this performance a fifth star but the combination of Crossroads deciding to ditch the use of real dwarfs in favour of real actors performing on their knees (think Lord Farquaad in Shrek The musical) with several tunes that went right over my head (including the horrendous use of a Cher-style auto-tuner) means that I have no choice but to invoke my Craig Revel Horwood marking style – sorry. Whether or not it’s more discriminatory to deny the little people roles at a time that could be their biggest payday of the year OR to use fully grown adults when little people are inevitably available… is for another conversation. But I don’t really blame the producers for their controversial decision; only a few Warwick Davis-style little people know how to act and, apparently, five years ago the aforementioned Mr Davis’s entourage of little folk trashed a Woking hotel room around the festive period. Talk about unprofessional. Anyway, that’s from an anonymous but reliable source in last night’s audience.

Back to this year’s panto and Gok, Harriett and Aaron are obviously having a ball, with the three enjoying a genuine bit of equal billing. All three enjoy plenty of stage-time, which is how a pantomime should be written. All credit to Alan McHugh sharing the honours. In fact Gok Wan – who leads from the top, make no mistake – is probably the first to admit that he’s not an actor but a TV presenter. To that end he makes the most of his involvement with Harriet Thorpe (an actor-singer) who does exceptionally well as Queen Lucretia (Snow White’s evil step-mother). She can sing, she can act, and she can be very evil – as, no doubt, the warmed-up children in the audience will testify too. Stealing the show, however, is Aaron James as Muddles, hilarious throughout and not without his own talent to give some convincing impressions as well as sucking the ‘aaaahs’ from the audience when Snow White declares her love for the Prince instead of him. James enjoys plenty of funny scenes; the only trouble is I don’t know which parts he brings to the party himself and which have been scripted by McHugh.

Elsewhere. Rebekah Lowings and Benjamin Purkiss make a perfect Snow White and her Prince. Snow White even gives the marriage proposal – how times have changed. The ‘Magnificent Seven’ dwarfs aren’t featured very much in this production but all the same give a good account of themselves, as do the ensemble of dancers. There’s no song-sheet or children brought onstage either, but that could reflect the pandemic more the any political stance I guess.

I’m hoping that not too many jokes have been spread across all the ATG venues but we’ll know by the end of Thursday.


The Thursford Christmas Spectacular

The Thursford Christmas Spectacular

My first thought when invited to attend The Thursford Christmas Spectacular was…can it really be that spectacular? Some of the very worst things describe themselves with a superlative. So I was curious.

But over the years I had heard good reports about Thursford from a few acquaintances who spoke of how extraordinary it was, how difficult it was to get tickets and how they would love to go again. I was curious.

The Thursford Collection, in a very rural Norfolk setting, was developed by a farmer with a love of traction engines and other farming machinery. Over the years the site has created special and rather fine buildings to house this collection, together with related shops and eateries. In 1977 John Cushing – the show’s producer and director –  had the idea to put on a Christmas show and the Spectacular was born.

It now runs from early November until Christmas, with, notably, booking for the next year starting just before this year’s show ends its run.

It’s a very big show in all sorts of ways.

The auditorium is situated in one of the huge exhibition halls – some of the traction engines, paintwork gleaming, brasswork glistening in the Christmas lights, at its edge. A beautiful fairground carousel (used sparingly in the show) is in the corner, leading the eye directly to the extraordinarily wide but relatively shallow stage.

That sort of stage could be a problem but Thursford does not do things by halves. The cast includes 55 singers and 22 dancers. An orchestra of 28 musicians occupies the stage throughout the second half of the show – with enough room for the rest of the company!

For those expecting ‘The First Noel’ as a starter there is a surprise when two pipers in full rig enter from the rear of the auditorium to ensure a lively start. What follows is a variety show featuring song, dance, song and dance, orchestral pieces and  speciality acts – a comedian, jugglers, acrobats, the Thursford Wurlitzer organ and a cyr wheel artist. The show’s programme lists no less than 33 items in two acts – all topped off by an extraordinary and totally unexpected event during the finale.

The songs are a mix of carols, songs from the shows and others. The carols were beautifully arranged and, like other songs put into medleys – nothing lasted too long, which I think was a good judgement. The quality of singing and presentation is very,very good and the singers’ visits to the auditorium in procession for the carols make this something special. I especially liked the a cappella rendering of I Want to Hold Your Hand and very funny Christmas Can-Can but all of the singing is top rate.

As with the singers, choreographer, Tracey Iliffe makes maximum use of her very talented girl dancers who perform some numbers as a troupe and others with the singers – numbers from It’s De-Lovely (100% showgirl, complete with fans – a real challenge) and an exotic, oriental, interpretation of Bolero impressively done.

Those looking for songs from the West End won’t be disappointed…Blow Gabriel Blow, Be My Guest, All That Jazz, Lambeth Walk and White Christmas all feature as big production numbers with all hands on deck to wonderful effect!

I also have to make mention of the monologues, Toast (about a Duchess of Devonshire’s joyous discovery of electric toasters and sliced bread) and the drunken Christmas Cake Recipe. Funny and well done.

Not forgetting the orchestra, brilliantly led by Ben Ellin. Hidden and working hard behind the scenes in the first act but allowed to join the party for the second, Duelling Violins and Dominique being highlights for me. And it was a rare treat and a privilege to be able to hear and see Phil Kelsall play the Wurlitzer organ.

Deep breath … as if that were not enough the whole is interspersed with other, speciality acts. Delfina and Bartek show their acrobatic skill; I felt their second set, performed with no equipment at all and relying simply on counterbalance was beautiful and breathtaking – as the many gasps from the audience proved. Bibi and Bichu juggle fast and furious to Perpetuum Mobile and Billy George demostrates huge skill on the cyr wheel – which had to be seen to be believed.

Completing the picture is Kev Orkian, who I could write a whole review about. An Armenian comedian Kev  is, simply, a very funny man. Playing on his underdog ‘immigrant’ status – but never demeaning himself for a cheap laugh – Kev was a real treat. Clever, with the ability to get the audience on his side almost as soon as he took the stage, he was also compere. And, a very accomplished pianist, Kev also uses this to fine effect – I loved his attempt to copy the Elton John scratched CD the ‘management’ had given him to learn from and the ‘missing page of music’ gag was priceless!

The whole show was sumptuously costumed (commendations to the costume department and wardrobe staff – with all those costume changes backstage must be so busy!), well-lit with an excellent sound balance between the orchestra and the singers (not always the case in even the best West-End productions).

What a show!

Your correspondent is pleased to report that The Thursford Christmas Spectacular is indeed nothing less than…spectacular.

Peter Pan

Peter Pan

With the industry still a world away from being ‘back to normal’ I am absolutely thrilled to be visiting Alban Arena, to watch an OVO production, a musical version of J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan. OVO is an award-winning St Albans based theatre company. Established in 2002, it has produced more than eighty shows over the past eighteen years. With this amount of experience and with them having a reputation for producing inspiring theatre my expectations are high and I’m not disappointed. As the lights dim and the action on stage begins we are invited into the magical imagination of J.M. Barrie, I’m pleased to discover this particular production, directed by Adam Nichols, is very in keeping with the traditional story.

The set is designed for practicality, to be able to move and change easily and also the same pieces to be used for multiple purposes. Everything feels organic, natural colours, simplistic designs and shapes. The music and sounds are being provided by musicians at the side of the stage in a subtle style. Each element working together creating a very wholesome undertone.

In places it slows down for too long, I understand the reasons, changing the scene or using contemporary dance to express fight scenes in slow motion, but it happens a few too many times and loses the flow and pace of the story. By doing this it also lacks the grit you would expect or desire from the pirates and fight scenes in general.

Over the years I have seen many versions of this story and therefore many Peters and I can confidently say Felipe Pacheco gives the best version I’ve witnessed. He has the right balance of the many personality traits the character entails, his energy and animation is exemplary, I actually believe he is truly Peter Pan and not an actor at all.

Flora Squires – Wendy Darling, is quite obviously a talented actor but the highlight of the show for me is when she sings. Her vocal abilities seem effortless and I could listen to her sing all evening. She provides warmth and heart to the production, the love between Wendy and Peter is portrayed quite deeply and focussed on in such a way that I have a new understanding of the complex relationship.

Having a narrator on stage throughout and fully emerged in the scenes works extremely well. Anna Franklin – Narrator, truly commands the audience to pay attention without ever being out of place in a scene, her vocal performance is also a pleasure to the ears.

Jo Servi – Gentleman Starkey is a smaller role but stands out to me, he doesn’t break character for a single minute and his vocals fill the arena even if from the side of the stage.

The cast join in musical moments by playing instruments themselves whilst scenes are changing, a bit like a merry folk band, it’s enjoyable, show cases the clearly talented cast and again brings a natural, authentic feel to the performance.

It’s definitely Peter Pan but not how it’s usually told in a conventional way, which I enjoy very much. If I were to describe it I would say it’s a grown up version, the focus is on the relationships and feelings of the characters much more than the silliness or magic of neverland. I see the characters in a new light which is fascinating but I realise it’s quite serious and heart wrenching rather than young and humorous, not a negative though by any means, just a new way of experiencing this story for myself.

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  • : 12/12/2020