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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.