“The amount of sexual innuendo in that show was ridiculous,” came the exit poll verdict from a fellow theatregoer as we filed out of Cinderella at the London Palladium. The age guide for the first panto for many years at this theatre is that it is unsuitable for the under-fives. It was not so much the innuendo itself that leads me to think the age recommendation should be raised by a few years. It was the barrage of questions of the youngest members of the audience gave their parents at the interval, and I can only assume similar conversations took place on the way home. The 10.30pm finish makes this show longer than Wicked or Les Miserables, to give an indication of the stamina required to make it through the show, whatever one’s age.
Where to begin? The set is altogether glamorous, and the costumes often eliciting whooping from the audience, especially the dazzling attires of Dandini (a crowd-pleasing Julian Clary). The lighting is incredible and the special effects a wonder to behold: from what I could deduce, the same or at least similar technology to create the magic carpet ride in Disney’s Aladdin over at the Prince Edward Theatre is in use to get Cinderella (Natasha J Barnes) to the ball.
There’s a lot of ‘celebrity casting’ going on, and though the likes of Julian Clary and Paul O’Grady (the latter playing Baroness Hardup, best described as the one you’re meant to boo at) have incredible stage presence, they are granted parts in musical numbers that are theirs because of the way the narrative is structured. However, they are, to be frank, not the best of singers, a point only highlighted all the more when the likes of Barnes, Lee Mead (Prince Charming – who else?) and Paul Zerdin (Buttons) are in full flow in a modified rendering of ‘Love Changes Everything’ from Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love. They do at least make up for it in an incredible ability to ad-lib, sending both the audience and – every so often, their more theatrical co-stars – into cahoots. They literally stop the show.
Zerdin, permitted if not positively encouraged by the creatives to retain the services of Sam, his sidekick puppet through which his ventriloquism skills are displayed, indulges in some hilarious audience interaction. In true pantomime style, some fortunate or unfortunate soul in the front row is almost relentlessly picked on and name-dropped. Mead was able to relive a past experience by reprising ‘Any Dream Will Do’ from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a running gag involving Nigel Havers (Lord Chamberlain) being in an underdeveloped role elicited both sympathy and yet more laughter.
The musical numbers are highly varied. When Baroness Hardup (boo!) turns away from being evil, she does so in an evangelical sense, and a catchy gospel number is the end result. Elsewhere, disco numbers in the style of Priscilla Queen of the Desert The Musical set pulses racing, Amanda Holden’s Fairy Godmother is vocally varied (and not always in a good way), and it’s Suzie Chard’s Verruca and Wendy Somerville’s Hernia, the two (somewhat) ugly sisters, that remain consistently engaging.
Though the plot has no surprises whatsoever, I would have liked a bit more of the traditional call-and-response that pantomime is famed for. Instead this production has O’Grady barking that three repetitions of ‘oh yes…’ is quite sufficient, thank you very much. At the performance I attended, sections of the audience even tried to insert an ‘oh no…’ where one could have feasibly been placed – the Lord Chamberlain and Baron Hardup (Steve Delaney as Count Arthur Strong – don’t ask) power on with their dialogue regardless. They could have indulged their paying public just a little bit. Oh yes they could.
It is Andrew Wright’s choreography (and co-direction) that raises the strongest audience reactions, both in the grand ball scene, and later in an Act Two comedy number about what various principals in this cast would do for a living if they had to have a vocation outside the entertainment industry. Greg Arrowsmith leads a talented and enthusiastic orchestra, bringing extra sparkle to proceedings. Look out, too, for Tiller girls, making a London Palladium comeback. It’s silly, it’s daft, even a tad erratic. I would have thought the pantomime purists will not be entirely happy with this production, but that doesn’t stop it from being a gloriously lavish, delightful and spectacular show. Worth seeing.