Sunday, 28 December 2008

Sleeping Beauty - Floral Pavilion, New Brighton

Sleeping Beauty by David Lee
Original Music: Andrew Rumble
Original Lyrics: David Lee
Director: Aiden Bell & Rita Proctor
Reviewer: John Roberts

Magic really has come to New Brighton again but it is not the premier production of Sleeping Beauty that provides it, it is the new fantastic multi-million pound refurbishment to bring this regional theatre into the 21st century that really puts you under a spell.

This production of Sleeping Beauty, written by Pantoni Pantomimes owner David Lee, needs to be locked in a tower for well over 100 years and never rear its head again. Pantomime should bring joy and laughter to the children, make adults revert to young children and we should all get swooped away in festive frolics of merriment and song - this just isn't the show that will do it!

This production lacks any pace (nearly 3 hours long and you know it) and never knowing what it wanted to be, was this a musical or was this a pantomime? with most of the songs being original there was no real ability to clap along to your favorite chart song, let alone leave the theatre humming any of the tunes (apart from CUTHBERT but there wasn't really a tune to that anyway!) the pit band seemed out on the limb as most of the songs in this production were from recorded backing tracks. There was a distinct lack of any of your steadfast Panto routines, from the lack of "oh no you don'ts" and "It's behind you's" to a over played and dissapointly un-messy messy routine.

There has been some real misjudgement in the casting of this production, Aiden Bell (who also directs) plays a ghastly Dame, with no real rapport with the audience, Mike Holoway of 70's teen fame provides a very creepy and almost dad like Prince, even the leading lady (Leanne Campbell) looked uncomfortable in any of her scenes with her prince, and his 'come on everybody lets clap and get some energy in the room' remark was very Ironic considering there was no energy on the stage to begin with! The final misjudgement is having a skinned costume character take the lead of the Crystal Fairy, yes the kids loved seeing 'Fifi Forget Me Not' on stage, but having delays between a played voice over and real dialogue and the lack of any facial expressions really left any scene dead as a dodo, than blossoming like a bluebell.

However there are some performances that do stand out, the first being that of stalwart children's television presenter Dave Benson Philips, you can not go and see this performer and feel underwhelmed a consummate professional even when things around him are failing (sound equipment to name one) he carries on regardless, making sure that he at least gains most of the laughs all evening, even coping with one snatchy and rude 9 year old child during the song sheet, with grace and ease. Charlotte Milchard as Carabose brought a great blend of Villainy and comedy bringing a breath of fresh air into a stale and rotten production, but it is the performances from The Rita Proctor Teensteppers and the Liverpool Theatre School Juveniles that provide the show with any real WOW factor, giving 110% into all of their dance routines throughout the production and showing the 'professionals' how it should be done.

This production started off with real promise with a great projected video sequence, its a shame that the same production values didn't follow through the rest of the production, a pity considering previous pantomimes by the same producing company at this theatre in the past have been excellent value for money and a real treat for our family.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Mikelangelo & Undine Francesca - Battersea Arts Centre

Mikelangelo & Undine Francesca
Review: Honor Bayes
‘Prepare to be plunged into a netherworld of dreams and desire as these transcontinental lovebirds weave together a collection of brooding, sensual and darkly humorous songs and stories for your delectation.’

Sitting on bean bags in the BAC’s already bohemian cafe atmosphere, as I bite the head off a ginger bread man given to me by a lady in grey, I realise that I have truly been plunged into the weird and wonderful world of Mikelangelo and Undine Francesca. Like a strange marriage between one of Dracula’s wives and Elvis post speed and hamburger binge, these two extraordinary and hypnotic performers deliver an hour’s worth of sensual songs, interweaving darkling stories with a rock-a-billy beat in a smooth flamenco style.

With the constant hum of chatter in the bar behind, they never have to fight for focus or struggle to be heard, Mikelangelo’s relaxed fruity baritone and Undine’s undulating flicks, shimmers and wide eyed stares succeed in holding the audiences’ attention with such a potent force that at times you forget to blink.

They tell us stories of dancing with devils, step by step, hoof by hoof, of a 50 foot woman who blocks out the sun and of Mikelangelo’s strange birth – hatching out of an egg which has fallen from a tree sheltering his copulating parents from the elements. Such is the depth and breadth of their imagination that even Tim Burton would be proud to call this evening his own, and the proceedings definitely have a strong whiff of Tom Waits about them. However these are definitely two unique performers and they compliment each other perfectly, sparring with one another through a mixture of piecing humour and desperate seriousness, they coax you into their world and although you may feel slightly unsettled by its dark sensual surroundings, one feels strangely proud to have been chosen to be invited into it.

Performance artists working on a new musical piece The Honeymoon Suite, Mikel and Undine are definitely two performers to follow as they work in tandem with the BAC in the future. They throw themselves into this work with a skillful strangeness and eccentric vitality which is immensely enjoyable to behold and I for one am anxious to see a more fully formed version of their Kabaret Noir. As it is, this performance is an event which could be described as wearing its heart on its sleeve, but actually its a performance that takes its heart and sews it into the arm of a black lace accessory and it’s all the more wonderful for it.

Boys of the Empire - Kings Head Theatre

Boys of the Empire by Glenn Chandler
Director: Patrick Wilde
Reviewer: Edward Gamlin

Christmas is a time for theatrical junk food - a month of panto and pastiche, of fairy tales and family plays for audiences to gorgethemselves on like tins of Quality Street and tea biscuits. While much of it is mindless fluff, occasionally somebody will slip in candied fruit: still sweet and indulgent but with a healthier item atthe core. Such is how I felt about Boys of the Empire. Take an old Public School pulp of the Boy's Own variety and mix in the sultanas of double entendre and candied peel of post-Imperial retrospective andsteam into a laugh out loud Christmas pudding of a play.

The 1930's are upon us, and Pyke (Christopher Birks) is new to elite St. Elthelred's, and being a bit of a wimpy sort finds himself on the wrong side of lipsy Jewish Ascher (Mark Farrelly) and half-Iraqi Kamal(Matthew Runham.) Fortunately he makes fast friends with dapper Overday (Alastair Mavor) and the duo find themselves on the wrong sideof the Iraqi resistance movement. Can they save the school from the Dark Circle without falling awry of Mr. Pratt or getting a beating from Morley in the sixth form?

True to genre, the story is broken into five instalments, complete with introductions and letters to an unnamed magazine editor (Terence Barton) and stereotypical adverts straight out of a comic book. Likewise the vices which hover over the boys: smoking, gambling,sneaking out at night, and all sorts of beastly behaviours.

Much of the humour in Glenn Chandler's script comes from wordplay between Pyke and Overday, mocking both the upper class use of language and the homosexual undertones (here blatant overtones) of Public School stories as a genre. The punch, however, comes from an examination of colonial era attitudes, and how they may not be as relegated to the past as we expect: a scene turning the nations of the Empire into a sunflower is particularly pointed, and an ongoing disdain for foreigners is both historically and contemporarily accurate.

Patrick Wilde's direction keeps the play rapidly moving, and the set -a mishmash of trunks and chairs - is effective in shifting locations around the school, the surrounding estate of eccentric Lord Bamberry (also Barton) and even the Iraqi desert. Special credit is also due to whomever compiled the free programme, a thorough Boy's Own parody, which is almost as funny as the play itself.

If one is looking for some Christmas fare on the more substantial and shorter side, the bouncing and brief Boys of the Empire is a great choice for those looking to sneak in a quick one-act between their family visits and last minute shopping.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Cinderella - Buxton Opera House

Cinderella By Philip Dart
Director: Philip Dart
Review by Helen Hunter & Family

Having not seen a pantomime for many years, I’d honestly forgotten just how much fun could be had by all at such an event and this production of ‘Cinderella’ certainly did not disappoint! I was soon roaring with laughter (louder than my niece and nephew at times in fact) along with the rest of the audience.

The Fairy Godmother (Denise Nolan), Buttons (Phil Gallagher – Mister Maker), Baron Hardup and the Ugly sisters, Camilla and Cherie, all helped to inject fun and boost the excitement whilst telling the classic story of Cinders as she copes with her hard life of chores and bullying from her siblings. Set in the village of Stoneybroke, the situation of Baron Hardup and his three daughters was a timely reminder of our current financial climate.

So it was just as well we had the wonderful Denise Nolan as Fairy Godmother to take us away from our troubles into the magical fairytale with the perfect blend of mystery, energy and downright loveliness! With a slight ‘Mamma Mia’ theme running throughout, the high-pace musical numbers were by far the best and for sheer production values, credit must go to Jo Deaville for the Ugly Sisters’ (the excellent Andy Speigel and Michael Duncan) wardrobe!

If I was to be particularly critical, the second half lacked the pace of the first and had some, though hysterical, moments that were somewhat irrelevant to the plot and dragged the story on. For a school night, it could have done with being just 20 minutes shorter as by 9.30p.m there were some very tired youngsters amongst the audience.

For an all-round evening of family fun, this production of Cinderella hits all the right notes and perfectly combines the elements of tradition, entertainment and Christmas spirit.

Pippa: I have seen many pantomimes over the years with my children and I was particularly impressed with this production of Cinderella. Cherie and Camilla (the ugly sisters) were fantastic and made the show! Their costumes were hysterical and became increasingly more daring and outrageous (adults look out for the dressing gowns in the morning after scene!) We definitely got into the spirit of the show and laughed at all of their scenes – very well written and lots of tongue in cheek humour!

Leah (aged 12): I thought this pantomime was much better than any I have ever seen. The scenery was fantastically made and especially the forest, the palace and the horse and carriage as it was very believable. The actress who played the role of Cinderella (Ciara Janson) was very beautiful and looked amazing in the dress for the ball. Overall I thought this was amazing and the best production I have ever seen and there was nothing bad to say about it!
Ross (aged 10): I loved the musicians – they were amazing! It was really funny.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Sunset Boulevard - Comedy Theatre

Sunset Boulevard
Music: Andrew Lloyd-Webber
Book & Lyrics: Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Director: Craig Revel Horwood
Musical Arranger: Sarah Travis
Reviewer: Honor Bayes

Coming from a critically acclaimed run at The Watermill Theatre, Craig Revel Horwood’s production of Sunset Boulevard is a pared down offering of a melodramatic classic but is anything but blandly minimalist. Comprising of two fantastic male leads, a belting leading lady and a talented ensemble of actor/musicians, this is a show with a lot of punch in a production which perfectly balances the propensity towards the fantastical that lies within this story with a down to earth yet theatrically modern functionality.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is superb, at times hauntingly melancholic; it effortlessly intertwines the show’s ominous theme music with bombastic chorus numbers all performed by this marvellous company with a jaunty speak easy flare.

The Watermill has pioneered the use of actor musicians in their shows and it’s a style which works brilliantly with this revival and Sarah Travis’ musical arrangements and Horwood’s choreography are faultlessly in sync. The fluidity with which the performers jump from playing a big scene to literally playing the flute in a love duet with a clarinet or a double base in an interview scene whilst smoking a cigar and acting, is wonderful to watch and makes the show feel like a truly ensemble piece. This whirling ensemble of players succeed in creating a rich and tangible atmosphere on stage and it is hard to imagine how this piece would work without them. To their credit I would not want to see another Sunset Boulevard without this form being followed.

Ben Goddard does a marvellous job as Joe the young cynical writer who falls into Norma’s clutches and for a time seems happy to use her for his own mercurial ends. His detailed performance pitches the tone just right and where he could fall over the edge into melodrama he is always quick to pull it back. It is clear that he is having fun with this part and is relishing every look, wink, snarl and flutter and this comes across during his energetic and engaging performance.

Laura Pitt-Pulford turns in an appealing performance as Betty, Joe’s love interest. She is totally believable during her interactions with Goddard and the chemistry between them is palpable. In a wonderful example of the perfect interweaving of music and performance, her flute playing underlines her character perfectly; its bright melodies wrapped within a softly mournful tone. Dave Willetts as Max Von Meyerling is wonderfully sinister and was one of my favourite performances of the night. He gives off waves of menace and even violence and is truly frightening at some moments of the piece and yet at the end as Norma descends her staircase for the last time, his tenderness towards her is heartbreaking.
Kathryn Evans takes on one of musical theatre’s greatest roles with great aplomb. Her Norma skulks around her wilting environment with great elegance and she owns the stage during her big vocal numbers, her powerful voice reverberating around the theatre forcing you to pay attention to her falling star. When she hovers on the brink of madness at the end her fall into insanity is deeply moving to watch and as her eyes shine with tears you know she is throwing herself into the part completely. However even with all this hard work, she lacks the real star power required for the enormous part of Norma Desmond and her scenes with Joe never quite convince. One is not sure how she has such a hold over him and she does not quite live up to the divas that she is attempting to channel so doggedly.

Horwood’s direction and choreography and Travis’ musical arrangements compliment each other perfectly with a unity that belies an incredibly close working relationship. The pace is outstanding and the action is punctuated with instrumental pointers; a full stop of silence or a slow pause with a violin, these are moments which elegantly assist with the telling of this story. By requiring the actors to be musicians as well as musical theatre performers, a true synergy of music and performance has been created and it is exhilarating to see. This Sunset Boulevard is a lean mean melodramatic fighting machine, stripping away all the fluster and fuss, and leaving us with a polished, skilled and imaginative production of Billy Wilder’s heartbreaking and deeply moving story.

Photos: Alastair Muir

Boeing Boeing - Liverpool Playhouse

Boeing Boeing by Marc Camoletti
Translators: Beverley Cross & Francis Evans
Director: Matthew Warchus
Reviewer: John Roberts

If take offs are anything to go by then this show isn't the fastest, but once you start flying, and the turbulence hits in, you are guaranteed a riotous evening (if you think that's enough puns already then I can only apologise for what's to come!)

Matthew Warchus directs this touring production of his hit West End revival of Marc Camoletti's french farce about a non marital polygamist Bernard and how through his knowledge of air timetables successfully navigates through three relationships simultaneously with three different air hostess' from three different airlines, and through the help of his chambermaid Bertha things run smoothly enough, until one night Bernard's cousin Robert comes to stay, a freak storm delays take offs at the airport and the fun begins.

Marc Camoletti's script is very funny and sticks close to the typical rules of Farce; the doors, the mistaken identity, the sexual chemistry, but it takes for my liking a bit too long to get into full flight, the first twenty five minutes of exposition drag and lack any real pace, but Warchus manages to keep the audience hanging on the runway long enough before the real speed picks up, and when it does it flies by faster the Concorde.

Rob Howells lavish looking set - with multiple doors is simple and with the added splashes of colour really bring a sixties zing to the occasion, setting the tone and atmosphere with precise landing, even the choice or pre-flight french pop muzak gets you in the mood.

What makes this show a success is the strength of its cast, all pulling in simply perfect performances; Josephine Butler provides us with a terrifyingly strong and brutal Lufthansa hostess Gretchen, Sarah Jayne Dunn brings real sassy sex appeal with her portrayal of American Gloria and Thailia Zucchi ooozes that qualcosa di speciale which makes her Italian character Gabriella the most likable of the three, but of all the women in the cast the strongest performance is given by Susie Blake as Bertha the downtrodden but ever so blunt and dry chambermaid. Martin Marquez makes a devilishly perfect Bernard one can see why so many women would fall for him, but it is John Marquez's performance as Bernards cousin Robert that makes this show first class, with excellent comic timing and wonderfully executed simpleness that really stood out for this reviewer.

This is a fantastic show to end Liverpool Playhouse's Capital of Culture year, and I suggest that if you want to see a first class show at an economy price then pick up the phone and book your ticket now before it takes off to destinations new.

Peter Pan - Richmond Theatre

Peter Pan by J.M Barrie
Adaptor: Peter Denyer and Fenton Gray
Director: Fenton Gray
Reviewer: Diane Higgins

Having vivid memories of a childhood visit to the Scala Theatre in London to see J.M. Barrie’s ‘play’ Peter Pan, it was with mixed feelings that I arrived at Richmond Theatre to see the 2008 ‘Panto’ production of the same name. But I need not have worried, as I found this production to be just the right mix of classic J.M.Barrie and traditional pantomime antics.

The opening scene in the nursery, with Simon Callow as Mr.Darling and Helen Hobson as Mrs.Darlingand, their children Wendy, Michael and John introduced us to the Darling family and to Nana the dog, their nursemaid. It was well played in classic style without the need for music or singing. Exit the Darling parents, with an anxious Mrs. Darling worried that her children will be spirited away, without the banished Nana to guard them.

Through the window entered a flying Peter Pan, played by Bonnie Langford, famed for her dancing and well suited to this acrobatic role. I found Bonnie, on the whole, a rather disappointing Peter Pan, apart from her excellent, athletic, flying routines. She appeared rather ‘stiff’ in her role and seemed to overact somewhat. For me I felt that she never became a ‘real’ plausible Peter Pan. Enter Captain Hook (Simon Callow) to a chorus of resounding hissing and booing, he had the exact measure of this part, he was a perfect Hook, with a menacing presence and a ‘big’ voice. Tony Rudd, as Smee, Hook’s sidekick and chief pirate was brilliant. He combined his pirate role with that of the panto ‘entertainer’. In this role he used both jokes (with only a ‘light’ sprinkling of ‘double-entendres’) andvery good and clever impersonations, which were understood and enjoyed by all the audience, young and old alike. Like Hook, he built up an excellent rapport with the audience. He was aided and abetted by his four young co-pirates, who were all talented and well organised in their slapstick and engaging sing-along’s with the audience.

Cut to the exotic creatures of the Neverland, the Crocodile, Doodoos, Pinkutan, Funky Monkey, Hogwart, and Lima Horne. These creatures were excellent at providing us with dance and colour, their costumes were fantastic. They immediately endeared themselves to the younger audience. The lost boys all played their parts well, as did Michael and John and the Red Indians, who were led by Helen Hobson, as chief squatting cow, with her lovely and very powerful singing voice. Samantha Clifford, as Wendy, developed into her part as the panto progressed, her acting also being enhanced by a good singing voice.

Both the costumes and sets were very, very good. The Darling’s nursery was from the original J.M.Barries’ era, matched in quality by the pirate’s ship and the lost boy’s house in Neverland.

One great disappointment was the appearance of Tinkerbell on ‘film’? as a flighty fairy. I thought she seemed to be overlooked, as the film sequence took away the magical feel and there was no ‘stardust’ to help in the flying process. A small moving light, in the classical way, is all a child’s imagination needs ~ if they believe in fairies.

Overall, I thought this was a very good production, with a clear story, good music and dance and a really excellent well rehearsed and well balanced cast. It moved at just the right pace and every scene followed smoothly from the last. It was a pantomime which all the audience, both young and old really enjoyed.
Real family entertainment !!
Photos: Tristram Kenton

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Mother Goose - Liverpool Everyman

Mother Goose by Sarah Nixon & Mark Chatterton
Director: Mark Chatterton
Reviewer: Stephanie Rowe

The Everyman have done it again! Each year the Christmas panto just gets better and better and that can be only down to the fact that this is a creative team that work well together and all have the same end goal of a fun filled Christmas extravaganza that can be enjoyed by Children and Adults alike.

Telling the story of beloved and loving Ma Goose (Mark Chatterton marking a decade of Everyman panto's) who never lets Chuck – her feathered friend out of sight since she found him abandoned, her son Bruce is in love with the Princess and the King won't have anything to do with it, throw a witch that wants the blood of Chuck to keep her young and you have a panto that even the youngest members of the audience understand and this is credit to the wonderful script by Mark Chatterton and Sarah Nixon, who have once again produced a script full of double entendres that not only keep the children laughing but making sure the adults have a hoot as well.

The directing is also courtesy of Mark Chatterton and he provides us with a high energy production that is helped along by a simple but effective set by Dinah England providing us with a painted garden and balcony, which is used throughout the show, my only concern was that people on the sides didn't always get to see everything that took place on the balcony. Everyone knows that panto costumes need to be creative and bright and this is a show that keeps to those rules also designed by Dinah are a vision of pure hallucinogenic colour.

The show started off quite dark and menacing and had my granddaughter clinging to me in fright but this temporary distraction was soon displaced as the cast whipped us up in a laughing frenzy, getting us singing and clapping along under the musical supervison of Tayo Akinbode, it is clear to see why this is a man that is never out of work.

All the cast work their socks off to get their pay but its the on stage chemistry between Adam Keast (King Bling) and Francis Tucker (Ma Goose) that makes sure that you are creased with laughter and kept this zingy panto zipping along, they clearly love working together and this is so obvious from the offset. Notable mentions must also be given to Nicky Swift (Fairy Feathers), Matthew Quinn (Chuck), Tara Nelson (Princess Aurora), Rebecca Bainbridge ( Queen Narcissa) and Luke Kempner (Bruce Goose)

So grab a ticket while you can and be prepared to have a fabulous time, but also be prepared to take part.

A Christmas Carol - Kings Head Theatre

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Musical Adaptation: Phil Willmott
Director: Joe Fredericks
Reviewer: Adrian Pumphrey

If you arrive at the Kings Head's 'A Christmas Carol' expecting a deep and meaningful play then you will be disappointed. Go, looking for a family friendly extravaganza and you will have a very fun evening. This was a blast from start to finish. As soon as you walk in to the auditorium you are met with the scene of the hustle and bustle of an East London pub set in Victorian times; they never let you leave this world until the curtain call.

It would always be a challenge to bring a fresh look to this most adapted of stories, but one that Phil Willmott rises to in style. This interpretation is told from the perspective of a young Charles Dickens (Charlie Anson) who is trying to convince his publisher that after the failure of his previous novel, this one (A Christmas Carol) is to be a big hit.

This new adaptation of the Dickens classic has enough variety to mean that you don't feel like you are seeing the same version that would have been portrayed when Dickens was still alive. On the other hand at times I did feel as if it was trying to be too clever in some of its more abstract moments. I also felt it somehow wrong when Tiny Tim was used as the Ghost of Christmas Future instead of the towering, daunting figure we know and fear.

It was fantastic to see the musicians swapping their instruments for props as they took to the stage to become part of the performance. In such a small venue, it was a wonderful touch to have the performers and musicians alike come out into the audience at various points during the show. I was however disappointed by a somewhat unoriginal score from Joe Fredericks, using themes such as Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance at seemingly random moments. The singing from a couple of the main characters - including Scrooge himself (Mark Starr) – also left a little to be desired. This was rescued by the notable voice of the young scrooge (Nicholas Waters) and the wonderfully enchanting arrangement of 'In the Bleak Mid-Winter.

'The costumes and panoramic set design did well to transport you back to Victorian times and the fact that there were often 20 people on stage meant that you could not help but feel part of what was going on. This did mean that from time-to-time the stage did feel rather cluttered and it was difficult to know what you were meant to be looking at.

Overall however, this was a fantastic show. With a great venue, cast, set and scene progression this made for a festive night that anyone would enjoy. There were a few 'nice-idea' moments that were not fully realised, but that said, the variety and deviation from the usual expectation was refreshing and intriguing. Even with the genius of the original story, it is quite special to be given something new. I wonder how they will change it next.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Cinderella - Tyne Theatre & Opera House

Cinderella by Brendan & Stephanie Healy
Director: Brendan Healy

Reviewer: Ian Cain

If you’re looking for a traditional family panto with all the slapstick, sing-along songs, silly jokes, audience participation and festive frolics that are associated with the genre, then you really can’t do any better than visit The Tyne Theatre & Opera House and see Newcastle Pantomime Company’s production of Cinderella.

As usual, the cast includes many of the company’s stalwarts but there are a few new faces, too. Billy Mitchell worked his socks off as the beleaguered Baron Hardup, also doubling up as the Baroness Cissy Hardup, too, in the absence of Brendan Healy who was indisposed with laryngitis. Billy gave a stellar performance, despite the fact that it sounded as though his voice was also ready to give up!

Maxie Peters and Kevin O’Keefe donned the most outrageous and outlandish costumes and wigs as The Ugly Sisters, Sharon and Tracy. Both have been members of The Tyne Theatre’s panto team for many years and they are experts at working the audience. Their stage presence and comedy timing ensured that they received the loudest boos and hisses that I have heard for a very long time. Indeed, they just about stole the show.

Charlie Richmond, as Buttons, was a sheer delight. He gave the character a gullibility and simplicity that was completely endearing and he was smashing with the kids in the audience. Jane Holman’s Fairy Godmother was a treat, too. She portrayed the character as a slightly eccentric, ditzy and loveable old dear. The title role was performed to perfection by Catherine McCabe and she seemed to embody each and every quality that is associated with the rags-to-riches girl.

Christina Berriman Dawson and Jennifer Wren made a great double act as Dandini and The Prince, respectively. There was also a competent ensemble who performed in several themed dance pieces to the accompaniment of a great live orchestra. The sets were bright, bold and colourful, just as they should be in pantomime and there were some great wigs and costumes as well.

This pantomime really captures that festive feel-good feeling and, in this production, it isn’t only the Prince who is charming – each and every character is, in their own way, too. Well worth a visit!

Friday, 12 December 2008

Jack & the Beanstalk - Darlington Civic Theatre

Jack & the Beanstalk by Michael Harrison
Director: Steve Arnott

Reviewer: Ian Cain

Pantomimes don’t come much bigger than this ‘giant’ production (pardon the pun!) of Jack and the Beanstalk. Surely, everyone must be familiar with the story of the poor young lad who trades the family cow for a bag of beans and becomes a hero after climbing a beanstalk and defeating a people-eating giant.

Pete Hillier (CBeebies) plays Jack to perfection. His character is a combination of the role of the hero of the piece and the village idiot and it works really well. Pete is a panto natural, skilfully working the audience and scoring a huge hit with the kids. His comedy timing is impeccable and he has a great singing voice, too.

Ian Reddington, known to soap fans as both Vernon from Coronation Street and Tricky Dickie from EastEnders, immerses himself into the role of Fleshcreep brilliantly. His classical training is in evidence as he creates a character that is almost Dickensian. Steve Arnott’s Dame Trot is a masterpiece and he certainly proves that ‘there is nothing like a dame.’ His performance was not only entertaining, but also fascinating, as Steve seems to understand exactly what is required to portray a classic, traditional panto dame. His version of It’s Raining Men with the boys from the ensemble is sensational!
Charlie Cairoli’s kind-hearted King Crumble is the perfect match for Arnott’s dame and the pair steal the show in their scenes together. Cairoli’s circus heritage adds a quality to the show and his capers with Dame Trot are reminiscent of the good old days of the music halls. The stagecraft is wonderful. Emma Cannon is excellent as Fairy Dafodill and she cleverly manages to play the goodie-two-shoes without being sickly sweet.
Sarah Wales makes her professional debut as Princess Apricot and does herself proud, proving to be a competent actress and singer. The principals are supported by a fantastic ensemble of six. The guys, Jamie Cox and Mauro Melim are also given the occasional line of dialogue and the opportunity of a performing in a great musical number with the dame. There is, of course, the obligatory bunch of bonny babes, too and they are provided by The Joanne Banks Dancers.
It isn’t often that a theatre critic is unable to find fault with a production, and I am delighted to admit that this is one of those occasions. Everything about this production is top-notch. The script, by Michael Harrison is extremely well-written, Stillie Dee’s choreography is slick and precise and Steve Arnott’s direction is sharp and tight. I was also impressed to note that the duration of the performance was approximately two hours, meaning that the production held the attention of even the youngest children throughout.

This is one Christmas production that is well worth a visit – I am even planning my second trip! Highly recommended!

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Hansel & Gretel - Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Hansel & Gretel by Hope Massiah
Director: Dawn Reid
Reviewer: John Roberts

Traditonal family shows couldn't get any better than this fantastic festive offering from the Theatre Royal, This is a show that doesn't pretend to be something it is not. This is pure unadulterated sweetness and it leaves you with an aftertaste that makes you want more! Writer Hope Messiah has told the traditional story of Heathrow & Gatwick (sorry could't resist!) Hansel & Gretel, added all the traditonal panto elements; the boo's, the cheer's, the look behind you's and the song sheet and has penned herself a real festive treat.

Having recently lost their mother and their fathers business is down the pan, Hansel, Greatel, their Father and new Step Mother, move 'To the country' for a better life, but all is not good for in the woods lives the Wicked Wicked Witch of the Woods, so Wicked that they named her twice, having gained a reputation for eating children she sets her sights on Hansel & Gretel, helped along by her trusty sidekick Wolf, but with the help of Arrabella the ranger tomboy, Yellow Bird and of course the head of the Woodland Watch, Monty the Mole things for the Witch won't be as easy as she first thought.

Director Dawn reid, makes sure that this is a pacey, slick and laugh out loud show that all the family will enjoy, from the off we are treated to a good old sing along courtesy of Monty the Mole, making the audience warm to his lovable quirks and cute characteristics played delightfully by Susan Lawson-Reynolds.

It isn't rare that in a festive show to have one or two performances that stand out but this is no ordinary festive offereing, this is a first class cast with star quality turns everywhere you look, from the super sweet and energetic performances of Natalie Best & Darren Hart as Hansel & Gretel, to the terible twosome of Josephine Lloyd-Welcome and Nathan Amzi as The Wicked Wicked Witch & The Wolf, giving just enough Menace to make us hate them but not enough to send the kids home with nightmares. Gemma Salter gave us a flamboyant and likeable toyboy Arabella, and has one of the most silky smooth singing voices I have heard, but for this reviewer two performances really hit the spot the first being that of Yellow Bird played by Peter Howe, his physicaliastions and facial expressions had me in hysterics. Now comes the point where I have to admit at first thinking this production stayed away from having a male playing the Dame and that they cast a fantastic female actress to play the step mother, how shocked was I when in the Interval I found out that the Dame was in fact male and played superbly by Marcus Powell, totally convincing and unbeliveably funny, and a Voice to match his solo song bringing the house down in rapteous applause.

This is a show even with all its good points isn't without it faults, you wont go away from this production remembering or humming any of the original songs apart from 'In the country', you may go away remembering the poor singing voice of Darren Hart and his flat attempts at trying to bring the songs alive, but after all this is Christmas and with so many good points in this show you can let this small point slide.

If you want to see one of the best shows around this christmas then book yourself in to Hansel & Gretel at the Theatre Royal quickly as I have a feeling this will be sold out very quickly.

Photos: Robert Day

Cinderella - Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

Cinderella – By Roger S Moss
Director: David Morgan
Choreographer: David Morgan
Reviewer: Jim Nicholson with Sam and Alex, and Megan and Kimberly

Who is the star of this lavish, no expense spared, musical pantomime, none other than Ryan the Rat. Our Australian rodent teams up again with Christopher Biggins (Buttons), having appeared together in the jungle and this time Ryan really gets his big break as he delivers a superb solo number from the cellar under Hardup Hall. The kids loved it and so to did Ryan who previously had only been an ensemble member of the casts of Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserable (and any other musical that had a sewer scene) according to the programme notes.

Lavish sets, quality singing from reindeers, crows and that rat, as well as the cutest and impressively choreographed chorus kids(from the Lindsey Read School of Dance), not one could have been older than 7, are just a few of the elements that had the audience on side right from the very start.

Although entitled a musical pantomime do not be fooled, with a 10 piece orchestra and a string of numbers from other musicals such as Wicked and Hairspray the core element of the night was still the traditional panto as we British like it, groan worthy and corny to the core.

Christopher Biggins’ Buttons was at the centre of all that was good and bad within the Hardup household as he was hassled time and again by our ugly, and boy do I mean ugly, sisters (May played by Matthew Kelly and Flower played by Matthew Rixon), but he was also the confidant and shoulder to cry on for the much maligned Cinders (Rachel Stanley).
His boss, Baron Hardup, was the font of all bad jokes and Iain Stuart Robertson had a real Johnny Vaughen look and feel with his delivery.

Stefanie Powers as the Fairy Godmother gets a number of the best songs to deliver, including a fine rendition of Vogue, and I for one was surprised by just how good she sounded. Of course we were quickly groaning again when she has to have a “heart to heart” with Buttons but she soon did the business and the traditional pumpkin and poor old Ryan were on the receiving end of a swish of the wand. This meant that at last our sweet voiced Cinders does get to go to the ball after all and we are treated to a Chitty Chitty Bang Bangesqe take off of her winged horse and golden carriage.

Of course all is not well at the ball and her love for Prince Charming (Craig McLachlan) is cut short as the clock strikes midnight. Ryan keeps her spirits up when she finds herself chained in the cellar by May and Flower so they can grab the hand in marriage of the Prince. Of course they do not get their own way and if you go and see this show you must make sure you hide your kids eyes when these two turn their backs to the audience because let me assure you “thongs aint what they used to be”.

But there is always a happy ending and the cup cakes to chorus kid’s transformation in the finale is one of those theatrical moments that will stay with you for a very long time.

Megan and Kimberly (both aged 8)
The show was awesome much better than Peter Pan last year. The two ugly sisters and their opening the door to the Prince routine was so funny, and we also loved the kiddie cakes at the end of the show.

The Prince had a lovely singing voice and Buttons was hilarious. Oh and we both thought Ryan was the bestest Rat we have ever seen. We had great fun dancing along with all the songs especially the one from High School Musical.

Sam and Alex (both 10)
It was a really good, fun show and Ryan was really friendly with Biggins and they shared some great jokes together. The best part of the entire night was when the Ugly Sisters did the twelve days of Christmas using all sorts of weird items.

There were a lot of clever “magic like” appearances and the singing animals in the forest sounded even better than Ryan. Cinderella had the best voice though.

Aladdin - Sunderland Empire Theatre

Aladdin by George Wood
Director: Doug Quinn

Reviewer: Ian Cain

I love panto. And panto, when done properly, is a magical experience – an eclectic group of people producing a real family show. However, panto done badly is excruciating. Marketed as ‘the most star-studded pantomime in the North East,’ Sunderland Empire has brought together Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky from Starsky and Hutch) and Sheila Ferguson (lead singer of The Three Degrees and accomplished West End star.)
In terms of big names Glaser and Ferguson are certainly crowd-pullers, but this is panto, remember – a genre that seems peculiar to Britain, with its mix of cross-dressing, stand-up, seaside post-card humour, drama and musical theatre all rolled into one. American performers are renowned for not ‘getting’ it.

Fortunately, both stars have performed in pantomime previously and seem comfortable with the genre. Glaser plays the evil Abanazar and does a pretty good job of it, too. He successfully works the audience and visually suits the role, although his performance would flourish further if he relaxed a little more. Ferguson, doubling-up as The Slave of the Ring and The Genie of the Lamp, works hard throughout. She looks and sounds fantastic and has wonderful stage presence. The touch of West End class and sultry sophistication that she injects into the production is much-needed.

The title role is played by Anthony Kavanagh (Grease Is The Word finalist) and he is sensational. Combining a great voice, good looks and an affable personality, he represents the quintessential fairy-tale hero. His flying carpet solo scene, in which he performs Breaking Free (from High School Musical) represents one of the highlights of the show. Steve Walls, as Wishee Washee, is completely under-utilised. This hugely talented performer’s abilities are wasted for the most part, but credit must be given to him for seizing and making the most of every opportunity that he was given. His affinity with the kids in the audience was delightfully evident when four were brought on stage for a sing-song.
For all this production boasts big-name signings and strong supporting performers, it is also saddled with its fair share of lame ducks. Dale Meeks is horrendously mis-cast as Widow Twankey. He seems self-conscious and ill-at-ease as the dame and his performance is cringe-worthy. Meeks must learn that a mess in a dress, with a decidedly common use of local slang, does not constitute an archetypal pantomime dame – and the sooner the better.

Kelly-Anne Gower appears as Princess Jasmine (although the original marketing material listed Jennifer Hubilla from Miss Saigon) and delivers a one-dimensional performance. Worse still, her ‘singing voice’ sounded more like a broken bottle being dragged along a cobbled street. Masashi Fujimoto (Banzai) plays The Emperor and, for the most part, any dialogue that he is required to deliver is completely inaudible. Sam Bradshaw, who had kindly given his acting talents the night off on press night, relied on his circus skills to carry his performance as Pongo the Policeman.

George Wood’s ploddingly predictable, clich√©-ridden and banal script is, perhaps, even more to blame and it felt as though it had been scribbled on the back of a used envelope during a ten minute tea-break. In pantoland, all that glitters is not gold and this production proves that throwing inordinate amounts of money at a show does not automatically guarantee a resounding success. Only the sterling efforts of Sheila Ferguson, Paul Michael Glaser, Anthony Kavanagh and Steve Walls saved this panto from being a disaster and each of them should be commended.

Wizard of Oz - Theatre Royal, Brighton

The Wizard of Oz by L F Baum
Adaptor: John Kane
Music & Lyrics: Harold Arlen & EY Harbug
Director/Choreographer: Tim Flavin
Reviewer: John Roberts

First Family Entertainment prides itself on and I quote 'promoting the traditional values of pantomime' and it is here that they should have stayed and not ventured into musicals. Musicals by their very nature are a glossy affair and require high production values and its a shame that this just doesn't carry into this first musical production by the company at the Theatre Royal in Brighton.

The Wizard of Oz is a literary and movie classic and should be treated with, in my personal opinion the utmost of respect. This is a musical that has brought joy to millions of people of all generations through the decades, but this production which is directed by Tim Flavin (who also choreographs the production and plays the Scarecrow) has far too many elements that remind me of pantomime than a classic musical. Julia J Nagle's Glinda is a grimacing affair to watch, tripping all over the stage playing a typical 'blonde' does not do justice to the power and gracefulness that this role requires.

The set of this production looked cheap from the start, with tacky glitter lined tabs and creased back cloths, unfortunately the set just didn't get any better, Oz looked more like the result of a four hour art project from a Blue Peter programme consisting of cardboard tubes painted green and some nasty gold gilding, than the glitzy Emerald City that we have come to love and expect from such a stage classic.

But all is not lost in this production, a fantastic and show stealing performance by Gareth Marks as the Cowardly Lion brings a slightly more camp rendition of the Lion than I have ever seen, and although with hesitations at the start won this reviewer over after his first scene. Aimie Atkinson provides a suitable Dorothy and her singing voice is simply sublime, pity the accent didn't follow suit. Credit must also be given to a scene stealing Munchkin (Annie Edwards) who like her part in 'Into the Hoods' in London's West End was very well received by all, a bright young star and one to watch out for in the future.

All in all, the children who were at the theatre enjoyed this production but I was expecting something quite spectacular after seeing several excellent pantomimes by this company. Unfortunately though it takes a Director that has the courage of a Lion to try something new and bold to make this a production that stands out from the crowd, and like the Tin Man throughout the story, it just doesn't have the heart one would hope and wish for.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Danny the Champion of the World - Bolton Octagon

Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl
Adaptor: David Wood
Director: Mark Babych
Reviewer: The Astbury Family

This was our family's first trip to the Bolton Octagon, and what a fantastic night we had watching the theatres festive offering of Danny the Champion of the World. Telling the story of the survival of Dad and Danny after the death of his mother, and how they overcome the adversity of those around them.

The set of petrol station foreground and caravan was used to great effect throughout the play staying the same throughout, but with an excellent lighting design you were transported to the woods and various locations with ease.

Mark Babych's direction is slick and with a great adaptation by David Wood makes sure that this is a production that is fast and very punchy from the off, the actors are very versatile with many doubling roles and even creating sound effects needed for the show. This small cast perfectly bring to life Dahl's characters to the stage, with exciting physicalisation making sure you were glued to the stage not wanting to miss a single second. Des O'Mally (Danny) needs a special mention, this is an actor with a great depth and range of emotions, and at times brought laughter and lumps in the throat with ease and expertise.
Like any festive offering, you are to expect some audience participation and this show was thankfully full of it, making sure the audience were not just watching the story unfold in front of them but truly part of the theatrical magic. My Son and his friend watched eagerly all the way through the production, even enjoying being completely daft by making noises, foot stamping and clapping.

This is an excellent and not to miss family production, highly recommended.

Lloyd age 8
I was taken to see this as a birthday treat, and my friend and myself had a fabulous time, we laughed all the way through, my ribs were aching by the end. I haven't read the book but I am going to as soon as possible. It was also really great to meet Thomas Aldersley who was great fun. I had a fantastic time and want to thank all the cast for making it extra special.

Photos: Ian Tilton

Robinson Crusoe - Theatre Royal, Newcastle upon Tyne

Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates
Writer/Director: Michael Harrison
Reviwer: Ian Cain

Ahoy there, shipmates! Get ready for a spectacular, swashbuckling adventure at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle. Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates must surely be the most ambitious and costly pantomime that this theatre has ever produced! Upon entering the auditorium, the atmosphere is firmly set; a treasure map is projected around the walls, skeletons occupy the boxes, ships lanterns are hung on each level and a huge skull and cross-bones illuminates the stage.

For the fourth consecutive year, audiences are welcoming back Clive Webb and Danny Adams, the father and son comedy double-act who seem to have taken up an unofficial residency at the Theatre Royal. Having previously seen them perform in Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Aladdin, I have to say that, this year, they are at their very best.Apparently, box office takings for this year’s seasonal extravaganza had exceeded a million pounds before the pantomime season began!

This production is visually stunning. Combining an amazing giant robot (named Titan) with 3-D sequences from ‘Amazing Interactives,’ pyrotechnics, a zip-line and all manner of other technical wizardry it is surprising that there is room or time for a story. Yet writer and director Michael Harrison, Managing Director of Qdos Pantomimes, skilfully weaves in a magical tale of good triumphing over evil, filled with comedy, suspense, slapstick and romance – all done in good old-fashioned panto tradition.

Danny Adams plays the title role, complete with trademark laugh and catchphrase – ‘Accideerrnt!’ - and he has the kids in the palm of his hands throughout. He also scores a hit with the Mums, Aunts and Grannies in the audience when, in one scene, he removes his shirt to reveal a respectably toned torso, complete with six-pack. Clive Webb as Captain Crusoe is straight-man to Adams’ clown and integrates his own special brand of comedy-magic into the proceedings. Newcastle’s own Chris Hayward provides a traditional panto dame and wows the audience with an array of fabulous costumes, each one even better than the previous and all designed and created by Chris himself! Watch out for the finale frock and head-dress, it’s sensational.

Kathryn Rooney returns to the Theatre Royal as The Magical Mermaid and enchants the audience with her performance and her singing voice, far outshining Natalie Winsor’s Girl Friday.

Phil Corbitt, as Blackheart the Pirate, cleverly combines Captain Hook with Jack Sparrow and creates an interesting and successful new villain, much to his credit. The principals are ably supported by an energetic all-singing, all-dancing ensemble and a troupe of babes from the Marron Theatre Arts Stage School.

Indeed, this production is a fresh, bold and exciting re-telling of the Robinson Crusoe tale, filled with sword-fights, sea monsters and ship-wrecks. It exudes style, slickness and sophistication and is the best pantomime that the Theatre Royal has produced since Lesley Joseph wowed audiences with her Wicked Queen Lucretia in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 2004/05.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Great Expectations - Library Theatre, Manchester

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Adapted by Neil Bartlett
Director: Roger Haines
Music: Richard Taylor

Reviewer: Gemma Longfellow

As a dramatisation of a classic Dicken’s novel, I had high hopes to be impressed by the play, despite having never had the pleasure of reading the book and I was not disappointed. The script and acting were very engaging, and the intimacy and closeness of the theatre provided a perfect setting for this play.

The plot follows the story of orphan Pip, was has been brought up his sister and her husband, a blacksmith. A rags to riches tale, Pip has an ordeal with an escaped convict as a child, encounters a rich, eccentric, dowager and her ward Estella to whom he forms an attachment, and meets a Lawyer from London, all of which change the course of his life. We see Pip’s rise to become a gentleman in London and share his trials of unrequited love, debt and the discovery of secrets.

Dickens’ story is quite dreary in parts, but Bartlett has introduced a good amount humour into the dialogue and action, so as to keep spirits high in the audience and appeal to the whole family. There is something for all generations in the show, however, it may be difficult for younger children to enjoy the performance without first knowing the plot. The more frightening parts of the play are made less scary for children without loosing impact, by actors stepping out of the action to narrate the events.

Pip is played beautifully by Leon Williams, the character is completely believable and loveable from his first monologue. Williams executes Pip’s direct addresses to the audience with an honesty and likeability that draws you further into the story. Estella is portrayed well by Claire Redcliffe – we sufficiently disliked but understand her situation. The Company are excellent at seamlessly flowing scene and character changes from one to the next. Character changes are unapologetically made mid-stage, and are very effective.

The design by Michael Pavelka and the direction (Roger Haines) of the play are outstanding. With the limitations of rather a small stage at the Library Theatre, the set has been cleverly designed to adapt and change as the narrative requires. It is based around a series of movable doors and a limited number of props that imply a setting rather than spell it out, which provokes the audience to imagine all that may be missing. Using my imagination in this way was an enjoyable experience, one that can be all too easily missed out of twenty-first century life.

Despite a brief technical fault at the beginning, the audiovisual elements of the production were fantastic. Projected film and images are imaginatively used to create atmosphere and portray the personalities and histories of the characters. Coupled with great sound effects and use of live and pre-recorded music, the effect is very natural and uncontrived. It was refreshing to see this blend of new media amid period costumes and set.

A fantastic adaptation of an important piece of English literary history.
Photos: Gerry Murray

The Wizard of Oz - Lowry Theatre, Salford

The Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum
Music and lyrics: Harold Arlen & EY Harburg
Director – Simon Rawlings
Musical director – Jim Wells
Reviewer: Philipa Jenkins

With such a well-loved musical as The Wizard of Oz comes big expectations, and this was heightened with the casting of Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft as the Wicked Witch.

The show gets off to a somewhat stilted beginning in the monochrome setting of Kansas, with a couple of technical difficulties and tentative performances from the cast. It’s at this point that Dorothy’s dog Toto; possibly the most beautiful dog ever seen on a stage in Salford; who gains copious amounts of fond laughter and cooing from the audience every time he scurries across the stage, threatens to steal the show. This is thankfully remedied by the entrance of Miss Gulch (Lorna Luft) who put quite simply couldn’t enjoy delivering the legendary line ‘I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!’ any more. Clearly she is relishing the ‘baddie’ opportunity and quite rightly too! The cherished ruby-heeled role of Dorothy (Katie Schofield) was cast via the Lowry’s ‘Dorothy Idol – Search for A Star’ auditions and sees the 16 year-old make her professional debut. It’s a confident performance that in such a successful and nurturing show will only continue to mature and improve.

The production boasts a host of special effects and although a musical as famous as The Wizard Of Oz often poses a problem as to whether to stay faithful to all production values or to attempt a more varied interpretation, a pleasant balance is obtained. The tornado scene is cleverly achieved with the use of a screen showing a series of images reminiscent of the original film, and Dorothy visible in the house behind, culminating in a shot of Miss Gulch transforming into the Wicked Witch and beckoning the audience to step into the world behind the screen. Fantastic.

The bubblegum setting of Oz is as expected if not a little too obvious. The munchkins, played by children, are a delight for most; perhaps as the audience is predominantly families; however the lip-syncing that they undertake is not something I enjoyed. The three boys of the Lollipop Guild were fantastic however, as were the sarcastic talking trees who I was delighted to note spoke in churlish New York accents and not the southern Kansas drawl that the rest of the cast undertook.
The highlight for me was the yellow brick road sequence with outstanding performances from the Cowardly Lion (Jamie Greer) , Scarecrow (Ian Casey)and Tin Man(Joe Standerline ) who delivered the characters exactly as the production called for. Costumes were perfect, save a minor green-and-gold-combo debacle in the wizard’s 80s inspired palace teamed with a remarkably odd mimed tap dance… and by the time the wonderful ‘Lions & Tigers & Bears’ began the audience were jovially responding with the usual pantomime jeers, hisses and phrases.

Aside from the glaring fact that a young woman really shouldn’t be wandering around a dark forest with 3 gentlemen she’s only just met, the show is everything it should be, and everything the audience wanted. A lovely alternative to the traditional family panto, and with such highlights as Lorna Luft starring and talking New Yorker trees, quite frankly a production not to be missed.

Photos: Ben Blackall

Friday, 5 December 2008

Chauntecleer and Pertelotte - Hen & Chickens Theatre Bar

Chauntecleer and Pertelotte By Dougie Blaxland
Director: James Bounds
Reviewer: Honour Bayes

Based loosely on The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Chauntecleer and Pertelotte is a slickly performed, well written and directed piece, which for all these things still cannot convince of its reason for being produced. The basis of its parts and the sum of none, this show feels more like an actor’s showcase than a piece of theatre and the question has to be asked, why revise this tale?

It is the flighty story of Chauntecleer, a proud and sexual cockerel, who woes his innocent chick Pertelotte until she is his lascivious and fruity mistress. All is well with these horny birds until Chauntecleer is caught enjoying the attentions of the farmer’s wife, at which point Pertelotte takes a vicious revenge. Seemingly hell indeed hath no fury like a hen scorned.

Apart from learning this moral nugget however the audience has nothing more that it can take from this slight piece of work. This is not to say that the writing is not beautifully fruity and tootie and ripe, and with Lamb Lovelies and Bull Bolleckies’ dropping left right and centre, this is a script which is a pleasure to listen to. Furthermore Tim Dewberry and Annie Hemingway do masterfully with their roles, pluming and puffing and pecking and jutting elegantly as the birds, they are equally as focussed and precise in their human characters’ physicality. Vocally also they relish each line with glee and even if some of the accents which they lace these with are sometimes off key, it is clear that they are savouring the humpy pumpy rhythms of Dougie Blaxland’s script.

James Bounds moves his actors around the stage with confidence and élan, and the two performers play off each other with an assurance and stylishness belaying a strong external eye.

An admirable lesson in technique from all creative parties involved and yet teaching very little else, Chauntecleer and Pertelotte is all form and no content. At the end of the piece, this is a failing which is even mentioned by the performers themselves; on vocalising that nothing has been learnt, they seem to conclude that this is not an issue and that enjoyment is all that mattered. But through the very act of mentioning it they belay their worry that although an enjoyable piece of fluff, this production is as light on content as a feather and as such is not the successful piece of theatre that its creative components should have made it.

Goldilocks & the Three Bears - The Customs House, South Shields

Golidlocks & the Three Bears by Ray Spencer & Graeme Thompson
Director: Ray Spencer

Reviewer: Ian Cain

You don’t need to go down to the woods to be sure of a big surprise, just take a trip to The Customs House to see Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Affectionately termed ‘the little panto with the big heart,’ the venue has once again come up with a top quality festive family show. Packed with madcap mayhem, audience participation, sing-along songs, colourful characters and plenty of ad-libbing, this is pure, unadulterated, honest-to-goodness pantomime at its very best.

The plot revolves around the demise of Dame Dotty’s circus and the evil Baron Boris Bratwurst’s plan to trick her into selling-up, so that he can send the animals off to his fur factory. However, Goldilocks overhears the Baron discussing his plan with his henchman, Igor, and it is up to her – aided by Colin the Ringmaster and The Fairy Godmother - to thwart his evil scheme.

Co-writer and director Ray Spencer stars as Tommy, Dame Dotty’s simple son. This pairs Spencer with his comedy partner Bob Stott and the double-act provide much of the hilarity. These two go together like a horse and carriage and their stagecraft is a joy to behold as they veer away from the script and back again leaving young and old rocking with laughter.

Lucy Rafton plays a feisty Goldilocks, dispelling any misconceptions that panto heroines should always be simpering and sickly sweet. She looks great and delivers her musical numbers with aplomb. Indeed, this Goldilocks has girl-power! David Ducasse (Scooch) is Colin the Ringmaster, and he too presents a nice twist to the typical panto hero. His portrayal of Colin is as a bit of a ‘himbo’ – that’s a male bimbo, if you didn’t know – who has difficulty in voicing his true feelings for Goldilocks. However, with a wave of the Fairy Godmother’s wand and a bit of coaxing from the would-be object of his affections, he gets there in the end.

Suzanne Richardson ( Fiddler On The Roof; Beauty & The Beast) gives us a wonderful, magical archetypal Fairy Godmother. She works the audience well and has the kids chanting spells in unison with her for all they are worth. Although she may be a Fairy Godmother, Suzanne possesses the voice of an angel and provides some of the show’s best singing. Peter Darrant once again fills the villain’s shoes, a role that he has made his own, and relishes every moment of it. Clad in a flowing leather coat and the tightest, shiniest trousers I’ve ever seen, he basks in the badness of the bolshy Baron Boris Bratwurst (try getting your tongue round that bit of alliteration after one too many at the bar!) and ‘looks like a reject from Land of Leather.’

Graham Overton, as Igor, is the Baron’s hapless henchman and provides a perfect foil to Darrant’s Bratwurst. He brings to his performance an array of rubber-faced expressions and a funny voice that had the little boy in the seat in front of me in stitches throughout. Of course, tradition dictates that children and animals always steal the show and this panto is no exception. The babes were provided by South Tyneside Dance Workshop and each and every one of them is as cute as a button – and talented to boot! They worked their little pointe shoes off and were a big hit with the audience. That brings me to – yes, you’ve guessed it – the three bears. Named Bert, Gert and Squirt by the winner of a Customs House competition, they definitely have all the ‘bear’ necessities and brought ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ aplenty from the audience.

Add a brilliant puppet show from the amazing Kallini Puppets, at the beginning of the second act, and a rousing sing-along after the panto walk-down at curtain call and you have a traditional family panto that represents real value for money and sends you out of the theatre grinning from ear to ear. Whatever you do, don’t miss it!
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