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by on 13 December 2019

Panto Plus – a Phosphorescent Phantasmagoria


by Will Brenton

Imagine Theatre at The Phoenix Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon until 5th January

Review by Mark Aspen

Hold on to your hats, or tiaras as the case may be, for you are about to be whisked into an amazing magical world. 5-4-3-2-1 lift off!  And so we are counted down into the new pantomime, pantomime for the 21st Century.

“Stop, I want to get off”, I hear the purists shouting. But don’t worry our uniquely peculiar and much loved Christmas entertainment has not been lost. The eccentric old lady called panto is still there. It is just that she has acquired a new coat. If panto has had a new coat every fifty years or so for centuries, it is because she is such a spritely old dear.

And what a coat it is! Imagine Theatre, one of our largest producers of pantomime, faced a dilemma when coming to Croydon’s magnificently re-born Fairfield Halls, themselves wearing smart new coats. A musical had bagged the 800 seater theatre, but what about mounting a pantomime in the concert hall: half a big again, but no wings, no front house curtains . . . No problem! Imagine has, true to its name, come up with an answer that makes for panto plus.

The set by Mark Walters is a vista into a magical world, framed in a concave array of fairy-castle turrets. “Mega!” I heard a child say. The vista may become a midnight sky, or the place ballroom, or the hall of Hardup’s mansion, but for now it opens as a vibrant village. It had the feel of mediaeval Alsace, with a rippling stream sparkling along the main street, courtesy of Nina Dunn’s almost 3D video effect, and a windmill with proper moving sails. Here the lively villagers are having a street party, singing with gusto to tell us they are Dancing in the Street, and my, our sextet of dancers, choreographed by Lynne Thomas,  certainly puts their all into it!  Their show dancing is turbo-charged with the physicality of contemporary style and even break-dancing.   This is a big, big opening: panto with the pulmonary pulsation of a rock concert blaster.


Once the plot is underway (and the amplification has eased back enough for us to hear the dialogue – a small niggle), we meet the goodie side, the “hello children” side, Cinderella’s friends, Buttons, who arrives in an aeroplane made out of a courgette (“one of the Red Marrows”), and the Fairy Godmother. Then hot on their heels, the baddie side, the “boo-hiss” side, Cinderella’s fiends, Baroness Hardup and of course the ugly sisters, Tess and Claudia in this incarnation.

CindaFH03Tim Vine gives Buttons bounce right from the start. Brisk but breathless, he soon has the children firmly on his side. Visual gags, slapstick and flurries of excruciating puns all come so fast that he is hard to keep up with. In fact Buttons is hard for Buttons to keep up with. Energetic he certainly is, introducing Cinderella to the village Morris (with some alarming stick dances!) but by Act Two lack of puff leads to a ruse in the Twelve Days of Christmas gag, played with the ugly sisters and a hapless postman, in which he takes the first day object, so no running. This incidentally, and it can’t get more convoluted than this, is “the cartilage from a bear’s knee”, a sort of royal jelly: now are you keeping up? Since Tim Vine holds the Guinness World Record for telling the most jokes in an hour, we are in championship country here.

Fellow TV presenter, Cat Sandion, whose CBeebies fame instantly draws the children, makes an engaging Fairy Godmother. She is armed with plenty of 21st Century tricks for the off-to-the-ball transformation, but we see her right at the beginning to bring the plot to life and she is there when needed for Cinderella with uplifting songs, beautifully and lyrically sung.

CindaFH12Cinderella is the only panto in which you always get two dames for the price of one, in the “alluring” forms of the ugly sisters. Versatile actors Jason Marc-Williams as Tess and Alistair Barron as Claudia, now having worked in half a dozen panto together, seem almost twinned in sororal synchronisation, two flamboyant flywheels running like clockwork in the panto machine. The sisters of course have to have plenty of fantasy frocks, and Mark Walters works the grotesquery in this department too, with outlandish outfits and hairdos to make the beholder’s hair curl as much as the sisters’. As they modestly admit, they each have a “face that launched a thousand … lifeboats”. The sisters are all set up for some cockeyed coquetry with their hapless third-row-of-the-stalls victims, that is until the Prince and Dandini come along. Cosi fan tutti !! There is however something more scary than usual about Marc-Williams and Barron’s sisters, more menace than beastliness.

CindaFH02But beastliness to poor Cinderella abounds, egged on by the ugly sisters’ mummy, the wicked stepmother, Baroness Hardup. In this production, there is no Baron Hardup, Cinderella’s dad having already been dispatched by the new (and much married) Baroness, in an “accident” involving coach and horses and a cliff. Baroness Hardup’s spiky heels (and spiky hat) are filled with magnificent malevolence by Katie Cameron, doyen of Broadway musicals. She strides well into the genre of pantomime, which is unknown across the Atlantic (where it is usually confused with mime), but as Buttons says, “She answers the age-old question, ‘Why ‘oming?’ (??) ”. Cameron adds femme fatale glamour (and a bit of NYNY glitz) into the usual wicked stepmother dastardly backstabbing.

Nevertheless, even Baroness Hardup is not immune to the charms of Prince Charming, who appears on the scene in a razzmatazz of music and lights. No quite walkabout for this prince when he meets the townsfolk. James Bisp, in the regal role, is dashing, and cuts a handsome enough figure to wow the ladies in the audience (and he lives in Croydon) as well as the fictional ones, plus he can sing well too. His melodious Just Haven’t Met You Yet describes Prince Charming’s predicament.

However, the Prince alleges (incorrectly) that he can’t dance. Cue Dandini to help solve the problem with a few demo lessons. WhCindaFH07at a chance for Ore Oduba to show off all he has learnt as a past winner and latterly presenter with Strictly. This is Oduba’s debut panto, although he has been busy on the musical theatre stage as well in his better known roles as a radio and TV presenter. He bring dash and vitality to the role of Dandini and acquits himself very well against the dance Ensemble, which is complemented by the teams of the Junior Ensemble. Together, Bisp and Oduba make an engaging pair.

For Prince Charming it is love at first sight when he meets Cinderella. He is disguised of course, following a status swop with Dandini, but he can now put to good use the dancing skills learnt from Dandini, once he can extricate her from the village dancing. Soon they are singing a duet Bring Me a Higher Love, in an arrangement by Steve Power. Grace Chapman is an enchanting Cinderella with all the sweet innocence that the part involves, but a very spirited one, well able to stick up for herself. In a feisty exchange with the ugly sisters she is unbending in her defence of the value of love. Chapman has a lovely clear singing voice and later the reprise of Bring Me a Higher Love at a slower tempo is as expressive as it is romantic.


From here the plot of good versus bad plays out, invitations are ripped, and the Fairy Godmother appears in order to set in train the solution. Sandion’s heart-inspiring rendering of What If I Told You triggers the transformations, in which the skills of Jamie Corbidge’s lighting and Mark Thacker’s sound design, add in to the design ingenuity which culminates in Cinderella being surrounded in an ocean of swirling silk, pale blue pearlescence which dissolves into a simple dress and then into the crinolines of a beautiful ballgown.


At the ball, events pass in the time honoured way until the fateful first strike of midnight. The full panoply of special effects sweep in as the fleeing  Cinderella rushes back to her crystal coach, and flies off (for real it seems) into the night sky beyond the set with an almost terrifying sense of urgency, a phosphorescent phantasmagoria that disappears into the heavens.

It is up there in the gods that our hard-working band, under musical director Steve Clark is sequestered away, alongside the acoustic baffles of the concert hall, like misappropriated Apollos, as befits this modern panto.

Director George Wood is an experienced traditional panto-maker, has rose admirably to the challenge of Cinderella in a cavernous concert hall to give us panto plus. Modern it is, but not so modern that tradition is left behind. It is a good clean family pantomime, with (unusually) no smut or innuendo. With his wonderful warm company he has created the glittering amazing magical world of pantomime for the 21st Century.

Mark Aspen
December 2019

Photography by Craig Sugden

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