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by on 9 December 2021

Strictly Panto


by Alan McHugh

Crossroads Pantomimes at Richmond Theatre until 2nd January 2022

Review by Mark Aspen

What have Cinderella and Strictly Come Dancing in common?  Well, there’s dancing of course, lots at Prince Charming’s palace.  There are glittery high heeled shoes, lots of, one with half the pair missing.  Then there’s Anton du Beke, lots of, in Richmond Theatre’s glittering zinging panto.

The glittering Fairy Godmother tells us, yes, we are in Richmond, more precisely “historic Richmond”, although the opening backdrop of the Palace has gained a few more turrets since the Tudor home-from-home on the other side of Richmond Green was downsized in the Civil War.  Indeed, the sets and scenery get more magnificent as the show goes on.  The climactic gold and silver ballroom set seems to have enough rare precious metals to solve the microchip shortage.

Ditto, the costumes.   Of course the most magnificent in that fittingly recherché way are the costumes of The Ugly Sisters.  Speciality costumier Mike Coltman has pulled out every stop to take them over the top, from wasp and ladybird to a full dressing table on panniers.  I lost count of the numbers, but his team’s sewing machines, and his own imagination, must have been on fire.

The Ugly Sisters, Beatrice and Eugenie (Daren Bennet and Bobby Delaney respectively) are rough-edged gals in theses soft silks.  They are gorgeously outrageous.  With no Baron Harup, albeit ineffectively, to keep them at check, they can let rip.  (There is no King either, for this cast is stripped back to the principal protagonists.)   The humour, in the time-dishonoured way, is multi-level: jokes for the children, jokes for the (almost) grown-ups.

The double-entendres fall as thick and fast as the glitter-strips from the fly-drops.  Beatrice enjoyed the experience of a “double jab”, while Eugenie enjoys “tongue sandwich”, but here is a more subtle example.  Beatrice, entering the royal ballroom, “Ooo, so here is where the Prince holds his balls and dances”.  Eugenie, “That’s what I call multi-tasking!”  Bennet and Delaney certainly deliver all that is expected of the raspy-tongued Sisters, and with non-stop physicality and energy; a gruesome twosome that can move some.

Humour, physicality and energy is what panto is all about (and I’ll come to the dancing shortly) and the expected gag routines of the panto formula are here, but with quite a few novel twists,  some with the help of Raymond van Stee’s sound design.  The Fairy Godmother’s attempts at making Buttons more attractive to Cinderella result in some voice malfunctions.  The pitch-shift kit works overtime as Buttons speaks, now helium-atmosphere falsetto, now basso profundo, with vibrato, tremolo and ho-ho-ho.  That was hilarious, but later the “shopping trolley” wordplay routine has instead snippets from popular songs in a variant of the game of consequences, which is side-splitting.

Much of the humour is lavatorial, which works with the juvenile mind-set, namely a panto audience.  Here though it is leavened with music, song or dance.  One is led to ask, who put the scat in scatological?   

So what of the plot and its protagonists?  Well, deep in the Hardup Hall, the family seat of the Hardups, family motto Totalis Borasicus (notice the pedigree of Cockney Latin) poor Cinderella is enslaved and generally abused by the aforementioned Uglies.  Oonagh Cox, a recent drama school graduate, portrays all the goodness, innocence and freshness of Cinderella, but she is an experienced dancer, and it shows, plus she has a bell-clear singing voice.  It seems her only friend is the household factotum, Buttons, but her protectoress The Fairy Godmother, there all the time, appears at the hour of need.  Rosemary Ashe seems made for this role with its kindness, positivity and warmth, exemplified in her warm singing voice.  Operatically trained and with an extensive repertory of roles in musicals, Ashe’s voice has an easy power and an understated decoration.    

Meanwhile, in the royal palace, Prince Charming is restless to find a bride, but one who will love him for himself, not for his status.  To his aid comes his valet, Dandini, with some white-lie deception, followed by armfuls of invitation to the society ball.  Edward Chitticks brings an assured presence to the role of the Prince, a genuineness (none of the strutting that the role can engender) and again a freshness, although he has had plenty of exposure to musical theatre.  A steady tenor voice and good dancing skills complete the picture.  Jonny Weston brings a lightness and his own characterisation to the role of Dandini.  Somehow, and this is not easy for the role of Dandini, he has made the part quite a stand-out, including in his own dance routines.   

A lot has been mentioned of dancing, and the foil for all the principals is the six-strong dance ensemble, hardly ever off of the stage, in various guises and always energetic, graceful and accurate.   Choreographer, Alan Burkitt has made the most of the stage space at Richmond.   He has also created some memorable moments.  Witness, the build-up to transformation scene, Cinderella being prepared for the ball.  There is a magical moment as six footmen come to life from a half-dozen pumpkins: six tap-dancing pumpkins in green livery and gold tights.  Then the scene is opened with the lifting of a gauze to a silver coach pulled by splendid pair of silver steeds … well, two rather cute snowy white hairy Shetland ponies.  A snowstorm onto the front stalls delighted the audience as they went off for the interval.

This Cinderella panto was very much propelled as a dance piece, turbo-charged by its bill-topper, Anton du Beke, as Buttons.  We all know du Beke as a dancer, of course, but this show reveals that he is a consummate actor with natural comedy flair.  This role requires tight comic timing, good rapport with the audience and an ability to work that audience.  Du Beke has all these, plus he wears his dancing skills lightly.  There are naturally plenty of references to Strictly Come Dancing, but he is quite self-deprecating, which the audience clearly find engaging.  That is not to say that there are not set-piece virtuoso pieces.  There is one pastiche in top hat and tails, evening cane in hand, of Fred Astaire.   Nevertheless, he is generous with the other dancers and often part of the team.  He has great fun with The Fairy Godmother and the two Ugly Sisters in a Twelve Days of Christmas routine, and obviously enjoys himself through the show.

Crossroads Pantomimes, which is based around the former panto titan Qdos, has a mission to reinvigorate traditional pantomime post-pandemic.  Judging by this production of Cinderella it is set fair to succeed.  Director Stewart Nicholls has created a traditional pantomime, respecting the age-old formula, but without becoming formulaic.  The much loved elemental are all there, given a boost by things like The Twins special effects and Richard G Jones lighting, which add the pizzazz.  Thankfully, as an aside, there were no political references; panto should unite, not divide.

Last but not least, panto is not panto with music, and the five-piece Richmond Theatre Orchestra, under musicals director Pierce Tee, worked their gaudy striped socks off, always part of the fun team.

It’s a “Ten” from Len, and “Another ten” from Mark Aspen.

Mark Aspen, December 2021

Photography by Craig Sugden

One Comment
  1. e-mail elizabethwait permalink

    Very good, agree with it all


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