London Palladium, London – until 15 January 2017
OH YES IT IS, IT REALLY IS…Want to see Julian Clary in a feather headdress and spangles, looping the loop on a flying Vespa over the front stalls.? Course you do! Hungry for pumpkins dancing in shiny green toppers, quick-change unicorns, random pigs and a chorus of Salvation Army lassies led by Paul O’Grady rasping for England? Yearn for retro variety, tastefully spiced with gags about Brexit, Trump, Simon Callow and Toblerone but only one of each? Naturally.
If you don’t, you are not in the panto zone, and as O’Grady’s ever alarming Lily Savage would put it, “shaddup, if I wanted your opinion I’d slap it out of ya.” For this really is the mother-lode of pantomime: heavy on stars but, more importantly, getting every ounce of hard work out of every one of them, mercilessly. Studded with headline acts, it never lets any of them do their shtick and walk away but melds them into plot and cooperation. It’s a treasure chest, a packed stockingful of silly treats.
The only shocking thing is that the Palladium hasn’t had a panto for nearly thirty years. Musicals clogged up its Christmases, among them Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat: a fact entertainingly acknowledged by the way Lee Mead’s beguilingly boyish Prince Charming breaks into Any Dream Will Do at the first opportunity, and follows it with another Lloyd Webber standard as soon as possible.
Why not? It is, after all, ALW’s theatre now. But that is only one thread picked up, for one of the pleasures of this immensely classy , joyful production is its sly self-referential edge. It opens, once Amanda Holden’s rhyming Fairy Queen has stunned us by flying out over the stalls in a huge crinoline, with a paean to the Palladium itself, and an olde London song and dance about “Argyle street” – complete with organ grinder and neon-candy romping street life: co director and choreographer Andrew Wright ensures acrobatic excess throughout as one might fondly expect.
But beyond that, there are constant tributes to the theatre’s history and to older variety traditions. Paul Zerdin as Buttons is a very high-end, sharp-scripted and quick-witted vent act with his puppet Sam, and has several showstopping turns; Baron Hardup is Count Arthur Strong in a loud check suit and orange trilby, a figure straight out of the 1930s . There are even Tiller girls, briefly, a big tap number, and a tremendous rendering of the very old variety comic song “If I were not upon this stage..”. In which, remarkably, all the comic principals except O’Grady take part, with neat synchronicity which collapses into slapstick thumps and trouser-dropping; you won’t often see such ensemble work with Clary, Zerdin, Strong, Amanda Holden and Nigel Havers (who is sent up rotten throughout as Lord Chamberlain – as in “I’m the thinking woman’s crumpet” “No, nobody’s that hungry”).
As for slapstick, it is unusual to have a standard buffoon sequence – a neat falling-off-a-log trio with Zerdin’s puppet – not being delegated to ugly-sisters or comics, but carried out by Cinderella and Prince Charming, in mid-lovesong. Director Michael Harrison is really working them: O’Grady in the wicked-Baroness role, a Knightsbridge lady from Hell, looks magnificent, rasps and scorns us in the usual LIly Savag style but also does a good deal of interacting with Clary’s Dandini and with Cinderella. Clary is priceless as ever, innuendo kept just the right side of a wavering line (well, mainly) and again hopelessly corpses Havers who proffers food with “Ive got a spiralized courgette” and is told “blame your age for that”.
And of course it’s wonderful to look at, a crazy neon-and-candy spangled bouffant exaggeration,more costumes than you can count ; the pumpkin coach flies high with white horses pawing over Row F. And Cinderella is a delight: Natasha J. Barnes fresh from standing in as Funny Girl gets an affectionate applause when – glancingly, subtly, unemphatically – it is mentioned. But that’s another thing to relish: nothing is allowed to drag or overstate, even in nearly three hours. Glorious. Can only deny fifth mouse because a few too many gay sex jokes, boys..
box office 0844 811 0052 reallyusefultheatres.co.uk to 15 Jan