matt and Andrew

Matt Slack as Idle Jack and Andrew Ryan as Sarah the cook. Pictures: Paul Coltas

Dick Whittington

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

HIPPODROME pantomimes are usually something special, and this year is no exception with a night full of wonderful entertainment.

The Hippodrome is a big theatre with a big reputation to live up to, and a big stage to fill, so it first needs a big production and then it needs big laughs, and plenty of them, and Dick scores on both counts, Oh yes, it does.

Then there are the big special effects with a giant rat and then a giant shark looming out of the stage and over the audience, or Dick in a sleigh pulled by a giant Rudolph flying out over the stalls and even doing a barrel roll! Why a barrel roll? Well I suppose The Twins FX were just showing that their sleigh could.

Add in a spectacular underwater 3D section and fish attack on a sunken galleon and enough pyrotechnics for a bonfire party and the big stage is set for a night of stars, with the biggest of the lot, despite being fourth in the billing, being Matt Slack as Idle Jack.

This is his fourth consecutive year in the Hippodrome panto and things would just not be the same without him – he is already booked as Buttons in next year’s Cinderella. His first appearance on stage and his final bow were the biggest cheers off the night.

He has an immediate rapport with thkrankiese audience such that you feel he could have started with "as I was saying". He has the Tommy Cooper gift of getting a laugh by merely walking on stage, and he is funny, clever, with silly jokes, impressions and funny walks not seen since Max Wall trod the boards, (younger readers can ask grandad).

He has become the Hippodrome’s resident festive comic, lighting up the stage whenever he appears with some very clever routines, such as a funny monologue mentioning almost 70 place names in and around Birmingham, or selecting a video and relating the titles as the dame, Sarah the Cook, related an amorous adventure with the video titles all appropriately inappropriate.

Andrew Ryan is on his third visit to the Hippodrome as dame and is one of the best around avoiding camp and giving us an old-fashioned pantomime dame - with ever more spectacular costumes including a Christmas pud and  a fat costume with tassels for those of a nervous disposition.

The Krankies with their ventriloquist style routine

Then there is another Hippodrome favourite, John Barrowman, in the role of Dick. He is another who walks on stage to be greeted like an old friend who has just dropped in. The audience are an essential part of panto and Barrowman invites them in as friends from the start.

So back to the panto. King Rat wants to take over London where Dick, penniless, arrives and gets a job to rid London of rats. He is accused of robbery, cleared, shipwrecked, survives, gets rid of King Rat and marries Alice.

So that is the plot out of the way – and to be honest it is about that thin.

But what the heck. What we are left with is a good, old fashioned variety show and we even have one of the oldest variety acts in the business, The Krankies, as Councillor and Jimmy Krankie.

The Krankies, who are both 69, have been going more than 40 years and Ian still flings Janette around like a rag doll. They are a different act live to the one seen on TV, funny, risque and with infectious laughter. They have worked with Barrowman many times and it shows as a double act becomes a treble act when they are all on stage.

Throw in Matt Slack as well and you have a gloriously funny nautical variation on the 12 days of Christmas which involves the likes of rubber rings, crabs, fish, blow up dolls and giant water pistols (people in the front ten rows or so might consider wearing raincoats for this section . . . just a suggestion).

Every panto needs a baddy so enter Steve McFadden, EastEnders’ hard man Phil Mitchell, as King Rat, trying to keep a straight face in verbal sparring with Matt Slack.

And if we have a baddy we need asteve goody, in the shape of  West End star Jodie Prenger, winner of BBC’s I’d do anything, as Fairy Bow Bells.

Her duet with Barrowman was perhaps the musical highlight in a panto that had a few chorus numbers but eschewed romantic ballads or big numbers.

Danielle Hope, winner of BBC’s Over the Rainbow, had little chance to shine as Alice, the same going for Taofique Folarin as Babby the Tabby, Dick’s cat, with both roles little more than footnotes in a script that goes for laughs with no time for any hint of romance or pathos. We didn’t even have the panto staples of look out behind you or oh yes, he did, oh no, he didn’t.

Steve McFadden as King Rat with his own line in short, back and inked

What was left though was great fun, all the comedy bits from a variety show packed with laughs, clever, silly and plain daft sketches and routines with the main characters feeding off the waves of laughter from an enthusiastic audience.

Which brought us to the surprise star of the show on Press night, Sam from Knowle who was six, or maybe five - he seemed a little unsure - giggled a lot, and, touchingly, was worried Matt had hurt himself falling off the stage earlier in the show

All of which was a dream for Matt Slack as he brought four youngsters on stage for a singalong as backstage readied for the finale. A comedy gem.

 Slack, incidentally, is brilliant at dealing with the kids at the end, always getting laughs with them rather than at them.

The characters are backed by a lively, hardworking ensemble who turn up as boys and girls, a harem, palace guards, rats and ghosts in a show full of wonderful costumes. Directed by Michael Harrison, Dick Whittington, is splendid entertainment with enough silliness, visual humour and effects for youngsters and enough double entendres and telling glances for adults. To 29-01-17

Roger Clarke

21-12-16

 

And look out behind you . . .

*****

THIS is the big budget pantomime with a cracking cast, wonderful special effects and a laugh-a-minute experience for bumper audiences.

Multi-talented John Barrowman is the headliner, making a terrific impact with his singing and humour as Dick Whittington, encouraging people to mark his regular appearances on stage with Brummie cries of ‘aw..right’.

But the biggest cheer on media night welcomed the remarkable Matt Slack, a former Pontins' Bluecoat who is so slick at working the audience.

And there was a particularly touching moment near the end of the show when one of the four children plucked from the audience, five-year-old Sam from Solihull, asked Matt if he was hurt in a plunge from the stage into the orchestra pit. The comedian assured him that it was just a cleversarah stunt. Mr Pantomime, if ever there was one.

The success of this panto is built on how well the stars blend, especially in the amusing Twelve Days of Christmas scene, and the performance of The Krankies is a bit special, too.

Janette and Ian have been in show business for 50 years, and if they qualify as the wrinklies these days they are still a very funny couple and unbelievably agile when wee Janette becomes a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Former EastEnders hardman Steve McFadden is the man the custiomers love to hate in his role as King Rat, Jodie Prenger (BBC I’d Do Anything winner) waves a good wand as Fairy Bow Bells and Andrew Ryan is a hoot playing the Dame, Sarah the Cook, in a colourful range of crackpot costumes.

Sarah the Cook seems to be in the pudding club.

But there are scary stars, too, with a huge rat soaring over the front rows of the stalls and an enormous shark providing the best Jaws experience you will ever want.

Even a red-nosed reindeer pulls a sleigh on high, and the brilliant 3-D show has the audience ducking to avoid cannonballs and a variety of strange sea creatures seeming to fly in their faces.

Youngsters from Birmingham Stage School add to the fun and the orchestra, under the direction of Robert Willis, deliver great music in a truly magical pantomime  

Produced and directed by Michael Harrison, this very modern Dick Whittington, whose big Brummie cat seems a bit of an under-used after thought.

Paul Marston

21-12-16

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