It’s that time of year again. The nights are drawing in, the mince pies are being scoffed, and the furious fallout from the general election has only just begun. I, for one, am full to the brim with that fuzzy festive feeling. It’s Christmastime again, and that means one thing in the West End: the Palladium pantomime.
The seasonal show has proved a stonking hit since panto-producing behemoth Qdos brought it back to the London venue in 2016 after a 30-year absence. The bit-budget-big-stars formula has worked critically and commercially with Cinderella, Dick Whittington, and Snow White. Next up, it’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Qdos director Michael Harrison has added a few new names to the roster of regulars. The One Show’s Matt Baker makes his pantomime debut, alongside illusionist Phil Hitchcock, while Paul Zerdin, Gary Wilmot, Nigel Havers, Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary all return to reprise their roles – or something similar – from previous years.
But have the critics got that Christmas feeling? Does Qdos make it four festive shows out of four? Does the Palladium Panto provide some much-needed yuletide respite?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews
The revamped Palladium panto has occasionally been criticised in recent years for prioritising famous faces and variety acts over storyline, slapstick and the traditional stuff of pantomime. And this year, it seems, the producers have really gone the whole hog – the story of Goldilocks has been transplanted into a Barnum-esque circus setting, and stuffed full of standalone stunts.
“Nobody goes to a pantomime for the plot but this eye-popping spectacle dispenses with it almost entirely,” writes Alun Hood (WhatsOnStage ★★★★). “If Vegas ever mounted a pantomime, this is probably what it would look like.”
For some critics, this is a bit of an issue. Ryan Gilbey (Guardian ★★) objects to its “disregard for story and the effect that has on the shape of the show”, while Jack Taylor (Telegraph ★★) reckons it’s a case of “too many ideas, too much money, and too little discretion”.
Most reviewers, though, don’t mind that much at all. For Tom Wicker (TimeOut ★★★), it’s “genuinely jaw-dropping” at times, for Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★★★) “there isn’t a Christmas treat quite like it”, and for Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★★) it’s “Britain’s greatest variety show”.
“We get, in ascending order of wow factor: a nifty magician, an athletic pair of skaters and a team of motorbike riders defying death inside their Globe of Speed,” Maxwell continues, while Veronica Lee (TheArtsDesk ★★★★) points out that “it may not be for panto purists, or the pure of mind, but this is great fun”.
“Pantomime is a medium with its root firmly embedded in variety,” concludes Paul Vale (The Stage ★★★★). “The framework that Harrison gives Goldilocks and the Three Bears showcases this relationship perfectly. There may not be much of a love story, or even a Fairy Godmother, but you’d be hard pushed to find better light entertainment or spectacle in the UK this Christmas.”
O’Grady, Zerdin, Wilmot and Havers have all done several editions of this pantomime, and this year they are joined by Baker, magician Hitchcock, a duo of skating dancers, and a quartet of stunt bikers. They are all praised.
Zerdin provides “endless delight with his hilarious ventriloquism” according to Shenton, while O’Grady is entertaining with his “amusingly weird accent” according to Hood. Wilmot, meanwhile, is “pure class” for Vale. “If they’re all basically offering variations on their performances from previous years, the indulgent Palladium crowd greets them like old friends,” says Hood.
As for the new additions to the show, Baker makes a praise-worthy debut – “charming, athletic and a little bit camp, he is a juggling, tightrope-walking treat”, according to Hood – as does Hitchcock, who is “extraordinary” according to Shenton. It’s Peter Pavlov and his Globe Of Speed act that really stuns, though.
It’s an “awe-inspiring motorcycle stunt that makes the Wall Of Death look like a walk in the park,” writes Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★), while for Hood it is “as exhilarating as it is alarming”.
There are some Scrooges in the audience. “It’s clear that a lot of money has been flung at this show,” says Gilbey. “Next time, a little finesse wouldn’t go amiss”. But most are thoroughly thrilled by the pantomimes pleasures.
The whole thing is “a ridiculous amount of fun” concludes Maxwell, while Shenton lauds it as perhaps Qdos’ “most irresistibly entertaining and spectacular panto yet” and John Nathan (Metro ★★★★) reports that it “leaves its audience brimful of giggles and drunk on entertainiment”.
And at the heart of it all, of course, is Clary, the most recent addition to the Palladium’s Wall of Fame, alongside such luminaries as Cliff Richard, Liberace, Nat King Cole and Ronnie Corbett. He’s back on the theatre’s stage once again, doling out x-rated humour in a series of outlandish outfits courtesy of costume designer Hugh Durrant.
This year he is playing the ringmaster – cue lots of gags about his “ring” – and for some critics, his innuendo is ill-judged. “A warning on the theatre’s website that some material “may not be appropriate for everyone” hardly seems sufficient,” grumbles Gilbey, while Taylor opines that although “Clary possess a genuine talent for double entendre”, patience wears thin “after the 10th or 20th joke about “swallowing swords”.”
Most reviewers are swept away in his sea of smut, though. He’s “sensational” and “thrillingly funny” according to Maxwell, “devastatingly witty” according to Hood, and “hilarious” according to Vale.
“He glides through this show in a series of incredible outfits, verbally skewering everyone and everything with well-honed skill,” writes Wicker, while Shenton calls him “a one-man pantomime legend, who both sends up the form yet is also entirely true to it”.
“One day, Qdos Entertainment and LW Theatres will give in and just name their annual panto at the London Palladium ‘The Julian Clary Show’,” adds Wicker.
Judging by the ratings, yes. A few critics complain about the paucity of plot, but a slew of four-star reviews suggest Qdos once again has a hit Palladium panto on its hands – if you can call it a pantomime anymore, as given over to variety acts as it is this year.
The acts themselves – from Zerdin’s returning ventriloquism, to Peter Pavlov’s death-defying motorcycle stunts – are admired by the critics, and although Clary’s annual tsunami of smut is met with a few discontented murmurs, the Palladium pantomime’s star attraction is pretty much praised all round. Goldilocks and the Three Bears looks like another Christmas cracker from Clary.