Mark Shenton: What I thought of the London Palladium’s million-pound panto

Natasja J Barnes and Paul Zerdin in Cinderella at the London Palladium. Photo: Paul Coltas/Steve Williams
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Pantomime. Is it back? Or has it never really been away? It’s a beloved British theatrical institution – though not by everyone, as witness my colleague Natasha Tripney’s recent confession that, try as she might, she just doesn’t see their appeal, or Ann Treneman’s recent admission in the Times that she used to employ “advance avoidance techniques” to get out of going to them.

And that’s okay. I don’t get restoration comedies and will run a mile from a periwig. But maybe I’ve mostly seen bad ones – when the National Theatre did George Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem in 2015, I loved it.

I’ve had my fill of bad pantos, too – I once endured a version of Peter Pan (which has been shoehorned into the repertoire even though it’s not strictly speaking a panto) at Richmond Theatre that totally put me off going near another panto that year.

Too much pantomime is sloppy or ill-prepared, as startlingly demonstrated this year by Stacey Solomon, who got off a plane from Australia (where she was presenting a spin-off series to I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and was on stage at Milton Keynes the next afternoon, script in hand, for her starring role in a panto there.

She tweeted:

Her agent was quoted in the Daily Telegraph applauding her for her “achievement”: “She arrived at the theatre this morning jet-lagged and shattered, and got straight on with it. After 2 hours prep with the director and cast she went on and performed in front of a packed theatre. I could not be prouder of this woman right now. She’s an absolute fighter.” But who exactly allowed her to schedule her time so badly – to land back in Britain after a long flight from Australia, and then allow her to join a show after minimal rehearsal and without even knowing her lines (that she could and should have learned before she got there). As West End Producer tweeted:

On the other hand, when you see a panto firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing quite like it – for intergenerational appeal, bonding an audience and celebrating the unique liveness and interaction of theatre. This year, a no-expenses-spared production of Cinderella has brought panto back to the London Palladium. Once, it was an annual fixture there; after nearly 30 years, it’s back – and at the top of its game.

Fielding three brilliant old-school variety turns – Paul O’Grady, Julian Clary and Paul Zerdin – it demonstrates how a new era has emerged. O’Grady and Clary were forged in the crucible of London’s once thriving drag act pub culture, and honour an ancient tradition of performers who tease, flirt, insult and outrage by turn.

Watching Clary, with his expertly droll one-liners, dripping with sexual innuendo, I can honestly say I’ve never laughed so long or so hard watching a panto before.

Yes, it was frequently outrageous. But it would also have flown right over the heads of the kids – afterwards, I spoke to a mother who was unconcerned about how dirty the jokes had got. Clary himself also flew over our heads on a motorbike that spun him entirely upside down as he took flight. You don’t, as he observed, get that at Aladdin.

Zerdin, meanwhile, is a true wonder with the kids; a popular entertainer who plays directly at their level, with complete sincerity and charm. Among their amazing company, this panto even uses performers who’d be headliners elsewhere as second bananas. Self-confessed housewives’ crumpet Nigel Havers blissfully sends himself up as he seeks the limelight but is constantly rebuffed. There’s also a knowingness to more youthful musical theatre crumpet Lee Mead, who’s even pressed into a reprise of the song from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that made him a star. And Natasha Barnes, the understudy who went on for Sheridan Smith during her extended absence from Funny Girl and made a big impression, is sheer delight in the title role.

Even if the only wish I secretly wanted the charmless Amanda Holden’s Fairy Godmother to grant was to wish herself away, I still had a blast. In an interview with producer/director Michael Harrison, he told me: “Nick [Thomas] and I think that if this only happens once, we want to make sure we can be as proud of it as possible. So we’ve not really set a budget, we want it to be the best we can make it. We’ve got £1 million worth of sets and costumes, and are working with the Twins FX to create three big flying effects.”

I’ve now heard that the Palladium has already been booked for the next two Christmases to host pantos again. But Harrison has set himself a tall order to better this show next time.

Where to find the best pantos in London and beyond

The Stage reviews more pantos nationwide that any other professional outlet in the country, and there’s nowhere better to find out what’s best to see. But these are some of the regular venues to look out for.

While commercial venues such as Richmond, Wimbledon and Bromley fly the flag for ATG’s First Family Entertainment partners, there are also brilliantly produced local pantos at Hackney Empire, Stratford East Theatre Royal and the Lyric Hammersmith that provide pantomimes less driven by celebrity than celebration.

Beyond London
Qdos Entertainment is the biggest commercial provider of pantomime around the country, and its flagship entry, apart from the London Palladium, is always at Birmingham Hippodrome.

Many regional theatres also produce their own entries – and at some, particular personalities have become fixtures, such as Berwick Kaler at York Theatre Royal or Kenneth Alan Taylor at Nottingham Playhouse.

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