Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of fun

Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

IF EVER a performer was born for panto it is Brian Conley. Panto is that most British of theatrical institutions, almost community theatre with the audience not only encouraged but expected to join in. Oh, yes they are!

True he had critical acclaim for his superb portrayal of Jolsen in the musical of the same name, and brought his own magic to the likes of Hairspray and Oliver! But once Christmas is in sight Conley and panto go together like Santa and Claus. He is the master of his craft.

And what a panto this is. It is slick, fast paced,  and no expense seems to have been spared looking at he the superb sets and costumes.

Robinson Crusoe, Brian Conley, is slowly being conned out of his treasure map by Blackheart, Gavin Woods

There are also some stunning special effects  with Conley and Polly, Kathryn Rooney, flying high over the stalls to look into the dress circle in a car and in the second act we have a flashing sea monster flying over the audience and showering them with deadly tentacles . . .  all right, party streamers . . . but they could have been deadly tentacles.

And just to keep the audience on their toes  there are enough pyrotechnics to have made a  decent November 5 display.

But special effects are only part of panto. Panto needs old jokes, daft lines and silliness;  it needs people in the audience who don't mind being picked on – as if they have a choice - so we had Malcolm, selected by a video camera operated by Conley scanning the audience, who was to be Mrs Crusoe's boyfriend and Helen who was dragged up on stage by Conley to help out in a dance – and she wasn't half bad.

We also had the obligatory children up on stage to be interviewed by Conley where we found a little star, Chloe, who was five and given a real trumpet to play in a Music Man section. Ok, she was not Eddie Calvert, but she got trumpet sounds out of it which is not easy to do at a first attempt.

As for silly jokes, old jokes  and bodily function noises which are the height of sophistication among younger members of the audience, Conley is in his element, taking over the mantle of the late, and great, Tommy Cooper for not only coming up with the daftest of lines – but getting away with them.

Mrs Crusoe, Andrew Ryan, with a rather worried Major General, James Paterson

The palm tree and shadow lines are as daft as they come – and very funny.

Up against Conley is Gavin Woods as Blackheart  the pirate, who must have  industrial strength vocal chords to keep up the gravelly shouting over the boos all night long.

He is a bit too much fun as a baddy to be really booed with real feeling and his hypnotism scene with Conley is a classic of silliness and very funny.

Mum Mrs Crusoe is another panto stalwart, Andrew Ryan, in his 22nd year as a dame and after an opening number where sound was an issue settled down to give us everything we expect of a dame, blousy, busty, brash and a little saucy – well a lot saucy really.

Keeping everyone in order is the Enchantress of the Sea, otherwise known as Lesley Joseph, who is a much under-rated actress who will be forever linked with Birds of a Feather.

Every word, whether softly spoken or shouted, is clear as a bell. She explodes, literally, on stage in a shower of sparks at pertinent points to help out our hero Robinson and his true love Polly.

Kathryn Rooney, from Solihull,  who plays Polly, incidentally was also Cinderella to Conley's Buttons last year.

The Enchantress of the Seas, Lesley Joseph, practising her scales, ready to save Robinson from the clutches of Blackheart

Every girl needs a protective father and  The Major General, played by James Paterson, has grave doubts about Crusoe's ability to provide for his daughter – to put it mildly. Wise man.

Patterson was last seen at the Hippodrome incidentally as Pat Boyle in I Dreamed a Dream.

While on the obligatory desert island Polly is wooed by the native chief Friday, played by Earl R Perkins who has to cope with an attack from a puppet . . . and then a hand after the puppet falls off, from Conley hidden in a tree.

We have Cossack dancers, a well drilled chorus and an excellent orchestra in this Qdos production directed by Michael Harrison, who also wrote it along with Conley to provide a lively script - although a couple of East European references might be better lost.

 As a nice touch at the end Conley paid tribute to the people who never get a mention . . .  unless it goes wrong, the backstage crew, telling the audience there was no other theatre in the world where they could have put on a show that big with so many effects in a matter of a few days. Praise indeed for the Hippodrome. To 27-01-13

Roger Clarke 

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