Monday, 15 December 2008

Peter Pan

Milton Keynes Theatre
8 December 2008

No flash in the pan

Right. The first thing that I want to say before I start is that this is certainly not a bad production. It is slick, colourful and looks expensive. It has good voices, lively dance routines and some nice comedy. But it’s not a panto! It’s simply a family show taking place at Christmas. The second thing is that it stars Henry Winkler (aka The Fonz) and it is this that makes it all worthwhile!

What you need in a panto are the following elements. Good Fairy comes on from stage right, followed soon after by the villain stage left. Cue cheers and boos respectively, right from the start.

Then there’s an all singing all dancing village scene to set the story. The hero comes on, the comic comes on and then the dame, who appears in an ever more ludicrous costumes as the show goes on.

There’s a ghost scene and a slapstick scene with copious amounts of gunge. Then the hero gets the girl, the villain gets his come uppance and all’s right with the world. Cue big glitzy ending!
But Peter Pan is NOT a panto. It is actually very dark and, for a panto, there’s too much plot, so much so that some of the nuances of the original charming story are lost in trying to “panto it up”. For example the whole Tinkerbell poisoning / do you believe in fairies scenario takes seconds rather than bringing out the poignancy of the fairy’s jealousy throughout the show. And it takes a good 20 minutes for them all to get to Never Never Land in the first place, because we have to get through that tedious scene in the bedroom. As such, it takes an age before we can boo the villain Captain Hook.

And, while this production does all this admirably, for those expecting a traditional panto, it’s a bit of a let down, and to be honest, I got a bit bored at times.

Thankfully the presence of Henry Winkler as Captain Hook saves it, as you perk up whenever he appears. He is fantastic and, with great timing, knows how to work the audience. It is telling that the best part of the whole show is the few minutes when he “does the Fonz”. It is worth the ticket price along for those of an age who remember this iconic role. But the fact that this takes place in a short front of stage scene that has nothing to do with the actual plot speaks volumes for the suitability of the show as a pantomime.

I enjoyed Winkler’s performance so much that at the end I wanted him to win. I ended up cheering him not booing and would much rather have seen Peter Pan end up in the crocodile’s jaws. I mean, Louisa Lytton was a sweet Pan but she was just Louisa Lytton really, and I would have been more than happy for Hook to have been victorious.

There was of course the traditional sing-along near the end, led by Andy Ford’s hapless Smee, but this was followed by the end of the story back in the bedroom in London which brought everything down again.

In short, this is a big production which, if you treat it as a Christmas show, is absolutely fine but if you’re expecting a pantomime, then it is only Henry Winkler that will satisfy you.

Jack and the Beanstalk

Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage
5 December 2008

Is is good, oh yes it is?!

The Gordon Craig at Stevenage is renowned for its colourful and traditional pantos and Jack and the Beanstalk is no exception – it’s even got a genuinely funny script. I quite simply enjoyed it from beginning to end.

The legendary Paul Laidlaw, who plays Dame Trot, also directs and he has assembled an excellent cast to make the familiar story come alive. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again as he does it at Stevenage for about the 15th time - Paul Laidlaw is an absolutely fantastic dame. He knows exactly how to work an audience, is the perfect mix of comic turn and faded glamour and with the best legs in the business to boot, he can do no wrong!

In his first ever pantomime, David Spinx (Keith Miller in EastEnders) makes an excellent pantomime villain as Fleshcreep. In fact, he gets it just right – villainous enough to make you boo, but just a tad likeable as well so that his transformation is believable!

Ben Nicholas (Stingray in Neighbours) returns to Stevenage as Jack after his role as Buttons last year. He’s an extremely talented young chap – he sings and dances well and has good comedy skills. All in all he’s a very creditable hero!

Kate Burrell is charming as the slightly ditzy but feisty Fairy Sugar Snap, Paul Burling is excellent in the comedy role of Jack’s brother and his ability as an impressionist adds to the fun.
Completing the cast are the lovely Claire Huckle as Princess Tamara and the versatile Scott St Martyn as King Neil.

The audience always love local references, which of course this show included, but what they really enjoy are the jibes at neighbouring towns. Therefore the likening to the Giant’s land being a place that’s “desperate, desolate and dangerous”, just like Biggleswade, went down very well!
There are also lots of opportunities to shout out with cheering and booing a plenty. What I really liked though, was that instead of the usual song sheet before the final transformation scene, that usually entails four terrified looking kids being made fun of on the stage, Dame Trott and Billy led each side of the audience in a medley of snippets of popular sing along songs that everybody knew. The kids thing only works if you’ve got at least one hilarious child who hopefully doesn’t realise how funny he is and/or you are related to one of them! This way, by belting out tunes such as "Is this the Way to Amarillo?" and “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”, we all had fun!

Best joke: Loads – but for me I loved: Jack: I’ve just been kissed by a fairy. Dame Trot: Welcome to showbusiness! Writer Paul Hendy also gets the absolute most out of the name of Princess Tamara such as “Will you marry Princess Tamara” – “No, I’ll marry her today” et al and ad infinitum


1.) David Spinx rendition of “I Predict a Riot”. He sang, he played the guitar and was surrounded by great dancers – this was real rock and roll and I loved it!

2.) Paul Burling’s impressions were really pretty good and his “supposed” 100 cartoon impressions in a minute was excellent – although there definitely weren’t 100. I won’t quibble though!

3.) Paul Laidlaw’s Dame.

Most importantly, Stevenage’s Jack and the Beanstalk is a real ensemble production where each actor makes sure this is one of the slickest and best panto productions around. So, is it good? Oh yes, it is!!

Monday, 8 December 2008

The Nutcracker - Northern Ballet Theatre

Milton Keynes Theatre
25 November 2008

A cracking evening from NBT!

I don’t think you can beat seeing The Nutcracker around Christmas and I found the Northern Ballet Theatre’s production to be a wonderful start to the season, before having to launch myself into pantomime heaven – or is it hell?!

I’ve always loved Tchaikovsky’s ballet music and, as a homage, walked down the aisle to the Soldiers’ March from The Nutcracker so, for the second time in a just over a month, the MK Theatre played host to some of my wedding music (see Carousel below!) I was a thrown a bit when the Soldiers’ March wasn’t done by the soldiers, but incorporated into the Christmas Eve party instead but, as we seemed to get a lot more of it, I was more than happy with that!

The unforgettable Tchaikovsky score is of course the highlight of the evening, but it was all imaginatively interpreted and slickly executed by this popular company. I particularly enjoyed the Mouse King's battle and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, accompanied by dances from other countries including China, Spain, Arabia and Russia.

Done well, the whole piece has a dream-like quality and should convey a feeling of utter escapism and in this, the NBT doesn’t disappoint!

Now, you’ll hate me for this cliché but, on what was a very cold night, I left the theatre feeling very warm-hearted as The Nutcracker once again worked its magic on me!


Milton Keynes Theatre
13 October 2008

Carousel spins on and on and on ....

I was brought up on the film Carousel, and have seen and enjoyed it immensely quite a few times on the stage, but I can’t for the life of me remember it being this long!

Time Magazine called it "the best musical of the 20th century", and while I feel that this is going a bit far, I have always liked that fact that in dealing with the doomed attraction of Julie Jordan for Billy Bigelow, the story moves away from the frothy romantic comedy much loved at the time, and deals with issues like domestic violence, all set against a fabulous Rodgers and Hammerstein score and lyrics.

It may just have been a bad night, but in Lindsay Posner’s production I found myself shifting about in my seat very early on. Billy and Julie must have been sitting on a bench for a good 40 minutes falling in love – a short amount of time in real relationship terms, but in musical theatre ones, interminable! “If I Loved You” is a beautiful song, but I just wanted to shout “get on with it” and became convinced that either previous productions must have cut bits, or that these two were dragging it out unnecessarily.

I have to say though, that the singing and dancing in the show, with choreography by Adam Cooper, was top notch. Jeremiah James as Billy and Alexandra Silber as Julie had strong voices and of course you can’t fault Lesley Garrett - it was just the bits in between that seemed to drag!

Nevertheless up until Billy’s early demise, the plot is at least believable and in many ways timeless. It’s after the wonderful “You’ll Never Walk Alone” that things go awry. I never really understand why Billy does what he does and his return to earth seems pretty pointless. But it’s the dream-ballet that really grates. I know that they were de rigueur in films at that time, but it seemed to last for an eternity and I think that it really could be dropped in this day and age – even if it’s choreographed by Cooper - sacrilege I know!

The highlight of the show for me was Nettie singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. It’s long been a favourite for many reasons – not all of them footballing ones – and a soloist sang it at my wedding so I always look forward to this moment in the show. To have Lesley Garrett singing it was a bonus, my only criticism being that it was very short. I think they could have doubled it, and cut some of the ridiculous clam bake stuff instead!

Garrett herself pours her heart and soul into the role of Nettie, it’s just a shame that it’s such a small part. But it does have the best song, and you could tell that she also thoroughly enjoyed “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” with the accompanying chesty dance moves – possibly a homage to her Strictly Come Dancing days!

All in all, I’m really not too sure how to some up the production. The score is fab, the singing and dancing is great – it’s just about half an hour too long. But if you can handle that, then it’s absolutely fine!