Raising the bar for panto

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

HIPPO pantos will have even more to live up to from now on after Snow White raised the bar several notches. As pantos go it is simply brilliant.

Stephanie Beacham as Queen Sadista in the Great Poison Bake Off

The cast gel beautifully and Gary Wilmot as the cook, Nora Crumble, Matt Slack as Oddjob, Paul Zerdin as Muddles and Gok Wan as the Man in the Mirror are funny whenever they appear and provide a variation of the old If I were not upon the stage routine which left people with tears rolling down their cheeks.

And perhaps that was the secret of the whole thing, it was fun, packed with laughs, with a simple well known story, and plenty of daft interludes - almost a throwback to 1950’s variety shows, but with 2013 production values.

Gok Wan was a revelation. He might not be in demand as a song and dance man after this but who cares, every time he appears he fills the stage with an infectious enthusiasm and, thankfully, the writers avoided the cheap, lazy option of filling the show with gay jokes at his expense. He was funny, slick and managed one of the biggest laughs of the night  . . . when he could not get his own lines out for laughing, with Wilmot, Zerdin and Slack helpfully doing their best to prevent him regaining his composure. That’s what friends are for in panto.

Matt Slack, in his 14th consecutive Qdos panto, is regarded as one of the nation’s leading panto comics, and it is easy to see why. He is rubber faced, has funny walks and gestures, quips and asides for every occasion and is genuinely funny, even making old jokes seem fresh.

And what more can be said of Gary Wilmot who has become a West End institution, he can sing, he is funny and audiences love him. This is his first stint as a panto dame and will surely not be his last. He just oozes class.

Paul Zerdin with Sam has taken ventriloquism to a new level and poor old Tom and Sarah dragged up from the audience had the full treatment as, wearing masks, they found Zerdin speaking for them. There is a fine line between funny and cruel when audience members are press ganged into service. We have to laugh with them, not at them, and Zerdin deftly made sure it was as much fun for his victims as the audience as he managed again later on with little lad Harrison.

Harrison was one of the traditional handful of kids brought onstage for a song and goody bag section, while the cast get ready for the big finale.

While three other children spoke for themselves, Harrison’s voice was hijacked, very funnily by Zerdin, but the little lad got extra presents for his unwitting part in the act.

Gok Wan who is full of enthusiasm as the man in the mirror

Meanwhile back at the Snow White bit of the show Stephanie Beacham is a deliciously evil Queen Sadista, glamorous, sophisticated and bad as the day is long, while Danielle Hope, winner of the BBC’s Over The Rainbow gives us a sweet Snow White with a glorious voice.

Her Prince John is John Partridge, Christian Clarke in East Enders, who, incidentally was a judge on Over the Rainbow so he would have been in for some right royal grief if Princess Snow White had not won.

His background though starts with ballet and then musical theatre with plenty of West End shows to his credit so it should be no surprise that he is a fine singer and dancer.

The seven dwarfs are a strange mix, seven actors on their knees which is quite funny in a way but gives the dwarfs a rather laid back stance all the time and does make them rather bulky and cumbersome to move around the stage. Jury out on that one.

As for special effects, Twins FX, have given us a rather scary, red eyed, smoke breathing giant dragon which soars spectacularly over the audience in search of Snow White at the end of Act one.

Mind you the dragon is somewhat less scary when it appears again in Act 2 with an accent that is more Dudley than deadly and an aversion to flying to areas without proper landing facilities.

There is a lively ensemble with some slick dance routines choreographed by Karen Bruce and an excellent six piece orchestra, who sound much larger, under musical director Robert Willis and good clear, balanced sound from Gareth Owen.

With direction by Michael Harrison and design by Ian Westbrook, this is a show for all the family – and an excellent introduction to the magic of theatre for any youngster heading for their first show. To 02-02-14 

Roger Clarke

The panto, incidentally, will be featured in a documentary on Channel 4 on December 30 in Gok Does Panto at 7.05 following the Chanel 4 star through his first panto journey. So don’t miss it.

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