BRISTOL Hippodrome has a pantomime in residence this week, oh yes, it has.
A pantomime in April, surely it must be an April fool joke, you say. To which the reply is, this is no joke – it’s a full-blown panto, winner of four prizes at this year’s Pantomime Awards. Does the production live up to that reputation, or in this, the last week of its tour, does it look stale and tired? The answer to which is, “looks fresh as a daisy, and throughly deserves every one of those awards, Best Panto (500/900 seats) best supporting player, (Anna-Jane Casey as Cilla), best ensemble and a special award for a Dame-par-excellence, one Ian McKellen.
That’s right, Ian McKellen the noted theatrical knight is playing the dame, doing so superbly, and, unless he is the biggest and best conman ever to set foot on stage, loving every moment of doing so. There is nothing artificial or self-indulgent about this performance, quite willing to play the stooge at times, and showing that wonderful attribute of excellent comic timing at other moments.
A fine actor on stage and screen, the references to Lord of the Rings and his character of Gandalf come thick and fast, with the audience picking up every one of them almost before the words had been said.
But this is no one man band. Not for nothing has the production won the award for best ensemble. Not only do we have a lovely set of characters brought o life, but with old favourites like We’re in the Money and One from A Chorus Line, rubbing shoulders with Gloria Gaynor numbers, they prove to be dab hands at delivering a big punchy chorus number.
When the occasional vocal opportunity comes the way of individuals, a show-stopping rendition of Don’t Rain on my Parade by Anna-Jane Casey in the role of Cilla the Goose who lays the golden eggs means they are never left begging.
The traditional panto battles are also plainly in view. Sharon Ballard’s good fairy Encanta versus Karen Mavundukure’s malevolent Scottish evil fairy Malignia, and Oscar Conlon-Morrey’s Jack never missing a chance to bring a very willing audience into the action. Oscar is also the target for some old fashioned custard pie slapstick comedy, and with his sharply defined girl friend Jill (Simbi Akande) working the well loved “He’s behind you” routine.
Not everything works perfectly, there were moments in the first half when the action lost its momentum, and some of the political jibes and laughs at well know personalities expense, smacked of looking for an easy target. But when in full flight, the second half flew by, full of music and laughter. This was pantomime at its best.
The absence of John Bishop as Mother Goose’s husband Vic, may have robbed us of some of the interplay between him and Ian McKellen, but no one could complain about the shift put in by his replacement Gabriel Fleary. He handled the comedy well, created a lovely sincere partnership with Mother Goose, and had the audacity to respond to Ian McKellen’s beautifully delivered “Quality of Mercy” speech, with a finely spoken “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day.”
Shakespeare sitting alongside slapstick, and satirical humour, and traditional pantomime routines, surely the twain shall never meet?
Oh yes it did.