Hmmm... after years of rowing back from his early reputation for appearing swathed in oodles of glittery tat, Julian Clary takes his first role in pantomime, which involves him appearing swathed in... hmmm... In Cinderella at Brighton's Theatre Royal, it's very obvious that Prince Charming (played by a boy, but one not yet out of drama school) is here intended to be a mere foil to Clary's Dandini, who makes his first entrance on a chariot pulled by a couple of young hunks clad in leather straps and ambiguously describes himself as "the prince's consort". It's also quite apparent that for much of the proceedings Clary is biting his tongue almost clean through; largely limited to the kind of camp gags deemed suitable for a family audience, he is steered uncomfortably towards John Inman/Larry Grayson territory. It takes much of his considerable professionalism to retain his own identity in a context much less conducive than it at first appears, and to do so without upsetting the panto applecart. But, bless him, he does a couple of numbers in his trademark Sprechgesang and even slaps his thigh at one point.
The other mainspring of the Brighton show is children's TV entertainer Dave Benson Phillips's utterly indefatigable Buttons; either Phillips is truly, tirelessly bouncy to the core of his being or he has a formidable talent for making such irrepressible Tiggerishness appear thoroughly genuine. David Hill and Tony Jackson make for a Little & Large double act of Ugly Sisters, with Jackson appearing at the ball with what appears to be a fishtank on his head (as Clary nearly sings earlier, "That's a moray!"). For the rest, Cinders, the Fairy Godmother and the chorus of youngsters make their usual way through a collection of boyband and girl-group numbers, local gags and the like. Time elapsed until first "Oh yes, it is!"/"Oh no, it isn't!" routine: 8 mins. Time elapsed until mandatory "Whassup!" reference: 12 mins.
E&B's Cinderella is towards the high-gloss end of the panto scale, the territory exemplified by the Oxford Playhouse's consistently beautiful shows. I deeply regret having insufficient time to see the Oxford Aladdin this year, so that I might have compared it with the more rumbustious Roy Hudd-scripted version of the tale at Watford Palace. Even in Pantoland, things change now and again, and for the first time in several years longtime Hudd associate Chris Emmett restricts himself to directing, passing on the ceremonial striped bloomers of the dame to Graham Hoadly. Hoadly's Widow Twankey starts out a mite on the restrained side, but only in relative panto terms, and comes into his/her own by the curiously plotless second half.
Huddy's scripts are always high on energy and higher on gag count, but some of the gags are tried and trusted to the point of being incomprehensibly outdated to youngsters: how many kids will get a laboured reference to the Mick Jagger of the mid-'70s, or indeed to Mick Jagger at all? But there are some terrific routines in there as well, including an "Oh yes!"/"Oh no!" sequence (time elapsed until first one of the evening: 10 mins) which seems spontaneously to take on the tune of "O Come, All Ye Faithful", and a beautiful switcheroo involving a big bass drum and the littlest of the children from the audience brought on to "help" with the Act Two singalong. The twentysomething students (and possible panto virgins) I eavesdropped on during the interval were full of praise for the look and feel of the show; by contrast, the ten- to twelve-year-old kids in most of the school parties on the night I attended seemed to treat it more as a social occasion, an opportunity for an evening out, than as an event in itself.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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