Mark Shenton’s week: How Harvey Weinstein revelations have impacted pantomime

Julian Clary and Nigel Havers in Cinderella at the London Palladium last year. Photo: Paul Coltas/Steve Williams
by -

A major cultural shift – and not before time – has occurred in the wake of the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged predatory behaviour against multiple women. 

As New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote last week: “Since October, when the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was outed as a serial sexual predator and shunned by the social worlds he once ruled, an astonishing number of powerful and famous men have been fired and disgraced. It sometimes feels as if we’re in the midst of a cultural revolution where the toll of sexual harassment on women’s lives and ambitions will finally be reckoned with.”

She also noted: “While the current frenzy to expose sexual harassers is, in large part, a reaction to the trauma of Trump’s election, it has not yet touched Trump himself.”

But if Trump remains a Teflon-coated king (unless the Mueller inquiry closes in on him), not a day seems to go by without yet another entertainment or media personality facing accusations.

Inevitably, everyone’s getting jumpy – New York last week was bracing itself for revelations that were rumoured to be forthcoming from a New York Times enquiry into abuses on Broadway, though they’ve not yet been published,

And, last week Baz Bamigboye reported in the Daily Mail that this year’s London Palladium pantomime, opening this Wednesday (December 13), is being cleaned up as a result of the current climate.

Long-established pantos routines, such as ‘The Wall’, in which a comic would put his head through a dummy wall and “turn and look up the skirt of the famous star”, or a star actress would be pushed off a table, and her skirt would fly up, are being jettisoned, not just at the Palladium but also in other pantomimes produced by Qdos around the country. Producer and managing director Michael Harrison told Bamigboye: “That just feels wrong, with everything that’s going on. There’ll be no looking up skirts — and nobody’s going to be slapping anybody on the bottom. The times they are a changin’.”

Themes and patterns

It’s funny how life is full of inadvertent themes and patterns. Last week, for instance, I finally caught up with Romantics Anonymous, a show set in a chocolate factory, on the same day that I also saw the opening of Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

Barnum review at Menier Chocolate Factory, London – ‘lacking in magic’

And in a different pattern, Marcus Brigstocke, playing Barnum, is the latest in a stream of stage comics to join the ranks of song-and-dance performers in musicals, alongside Ross Noble in Young Frankenstein and Meera Syal, who has just joined the cast of Annie at the Piccadilly as Miss Hannigan.

This coming week I’ll be seeing two versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol back to back: tonight (Monday), the London Musical Theatre Orchestra presents Robert Lindsay as Ebenezer Scrooge in Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent’s American-born musical version, while on Wednesday I’ll also be seeing Rhys Ifans as Scrooge in Matthew Warchus’ Old Vic production. (I could also go to Stratford-up-on-Avon for yet another version, directed by Rachel Kavanaugh for the Royal Shakespeare Company).

The week before last in New York, I saw a new revival of Ahrens and Flaherty’s first Broadway musical Once on This Island the night after revisiting their latest entry there, Anastasia, which is based on the animated cartoon they scored in 1997.

This week, meanwhile, also brings TV’s The Twilight Zone onto the stage of the Almeida, not long after Who Wants to be a Millionaire? provided the basis for James Graham’s Quiz at Chichester.

It’s odd but also enriching to find these shows all happening alongside each other.

Is “touring production” a sneer or just a fact?

When Bill Kenwright brought his tour of Evita off the road and into the Phoenix last summer, more than one critic referred to the fact that it was a “touring production”.

Even in these pages, reviewer Tim Bano asked aloud: “Is this really what the West End needs? Another uninspired production of another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical? Another all-white cast, another all-male creative team? Bill Kenwright’s revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic charting the rise of Argentinian first lady Eva Peron has been doing the rounds since 2008, touring the country, the world, and now settling into its second West End run. It doesn’t wear that decade well.”

Of course, theatre is a subjective art form, and I’m always the first to say there’s no such thing as right and wrong when it comes to reviews. But I’ve loved the scale and ambition of this “touring production”, ever since I saw it first launched at Liverpool Empire in 2008, then with Louise Dearman in the title role. I’ve since seen it in both its West End visits (starring Madelena Alberto, then Emma Hatton), as well as on the road in Bromley (with Hatton) and now, last week with Alberto back in the role in Manchester.

She’s a powerhouse miracle: as close to Patti LuPone, who originated the role on Broadway in its 1979 transfer there to Tony-winning glory, as I’ve yet seen. She has the same firebrand intensity and vivacity.

And it was thrilling to sit amongst a Manchester audience who were utterly spellbound by a show that turns 40 next year, yet feels as fresh and radical as ever. For me, at least, it never feels tired or uninspired.