The Palladium Pantomime is back for the third year in a row. Reinstated after a 30-year absence in 2016, panto production giant Qdos’ big-budget theatreland bonanza follows a sparkly Cinderella and a dazzling Dick Whittington with a sequined Snow White. Qdos managing director Michael Harrison takes the reins again of a production that runs until January 13.
Some of the regulars return: ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, West End darling Charlie Stemp, seasoned entertainer Gary Wilmot, an tirelessly game Nigel Havers, and – of course – the fountain of filth that is Julian Clary, in a procession of increasingly outrageous outfits. They’re joined by some fresh faces, including Dawn French making her panto debut as the dastardly Queen Dragonella.
But does this annual extravaganza impress once again? Does this assemblage of national treasures strike panto gold? Or are they dwarfed by the spectacle around them?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
The Palladium pantos have become known as shows that sideline story in favour of spectacle, that are much more music hall variety bill than traditional festive fairytale. That was the case with Cinderella and Dick Whittington – is it true of Snow White as well?
Yep, it definitely is. “Is this the most lavish pantomime you’ll ever see?” asks Alun Hood (WhatsOnStage ★★★). “Probably: from the eye-popping sets and jaw-dropping flying effects through to the glittery flights-of-fancy costumes to the gorgeous lighting and projections and a profligacy of star turns, this is an almost indecently lavish parade of theatrical excess.”
“It’s definitely spectacular,” I echoed (TimeOut ★★★). “We’re talking several eye-poppingly glittery sets, a giant animatronic dragon, a flying Santa’s sleigh, liberal use of pyrotechnics, and a flying Nigel Havers.”
“The story is there to give just enough setting for the show’s variety-night treats,” explains Dominic Maxwell (Times ★★★★). “And that’s why I love Palladium pantos. They fling money at the stage, but also expertise, experience, a passion for the job. They have fun, but it never feels as if they are having more fun than we are.”
Some critics are equally in thrall to the show’s tinselly, throwback vibe. It’s “a truly magical and thoroughly entertaining show that nods to the golden age of variety” according to Paul Vale (The Stage ★★★★), and “a riot of colour, camp and comedy” that’s “one of the single most entertaining and spectacular theatrical nights of the year” according to Mark Shenton (London Theatre ★★★★★).
Others, though (boo, hiss) think this trad formula is a bit tired. Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★) rails against “the self-celebration and in-jokeyness” of it all, while I noted how “some of it definitely stinks of d-list celebrities phoning it in for a paycheck” and Hood opined that “what was once fresh, funny and delightful seems a bit cynical now”.
“The tongue-twisting set-pieces are as fun as ever, but the random vaulting gymnasts and gyrating dancers suggest an absence of ideas,” writes John Nathan (Metro ★★★★). “Pantoland’s most extravagant show will need an injection of invention if families are to keep returning.”
At the centre of the show, once again, is Julian Clary. In past pantos, he’s come under fire for his bluer-than-blue jokes, with some accusing him of spoiling the show for families with his tsunami of smut. Has he toned it down this year, or is he as devilishly dirty as ever?
It’s the latter, and for some critics, that’s just fine. “Donning a different gorgeously garish costume for each scene, firing out double entendres with single-minded elan, but playing off his co-stars with casual virtuosity — he’s a superstar,” says Maxwell.
He supplies “wave after wave of innuendo” according to Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard ★★★★), is at “his crisp and cutting best” according to Shenton, and “fires broadsides of eye-watering smut and withering insults at all within range” according to Nathan.
For Cavendish in particular, it’s all in quite poor taste. “The sun keeps refusing to set on Julian Clary’s orgy of gay innuendo and self-admiration,” he writes. “I hate to sound like a party-pooper. And I like Clary when he’s doing adult stand-up, but he needs to rein it in more here; how this re-instigated seasonal institution won an Olivier for best family show this year mystifies me.”
Whatever you think of his material, though, there’s no denying he is dazzling to behold: “Even a Mardi Gras parade would look understated next to Clary,” writes Ryan Gilbey (Guardian ★★★).
“While my daughter didn’t (thankfully) get many of these gags she did love the singing and the spectacle, and the many many many costume changes Clary undergoes,” reports Ben Dowell (Radio Times ★★★★).
“He comes in as a whole garden of flowers, a painter’s palette and, a Christmas tree laden with baubles and so many other things. But you have to see him to believe the extremity of the spectacle – he really looked extraordinary, like he’d wandered in from an Elton John birthday party, having stolen Elton’s costume every time.”
But although Clary dominates this particular constellation, there are plenty more stars on offer at the Palladium pantomime. Not least Dawn French, debuting in panto as the villain Queen Dragonella.
Most critics give her the thumbs up. She is: “Still feeling her way into the role, but she’s already deploying her comic charisma to fine effect”, for Maxwell; brings “snarling good humour” for Shenton; and is “engagingly tongue-in-cheek” for Hitchings.
“It’s perfect casting, as French’s impish comic persona lends itself easily to the madcap world of pantomime,” reckons Vale. “In fact it becomes quite the balancing act as the Vicar of Dibley star crosses comedy swords with the outrageously costumed and outspoken Julian Clary, as the Man in the Mirror. It’s an unlikely pairing, but it works exceptionally well.”
There’s also a lot of love for Paul Zerdin this year – his ventriloquist act “holds the show together” according to Gilbey and is “hilarious” according to Shenton. And for Charlie Stemp – his Prince Harry is “excellent” according to Maxwell.
Elsewhere, the praise is a bit more uneven. There’s a sense that the critics are tiring of the Nigel Havers having nothing to do gag – “not so much a running joke as a limping one”, comments Gilbey – and that Gary Wilmot is a disappointing dame. He’s “uncommonly masculine” for Nathan, and, I thought, “fairly tame”.
It’s certainly eye-catching, that’s for sure. Qdos has once again splashed the cash to provide a seasonal show/variety act that is stuffed full of spectacle and stars. Clary is on cracking form – although that might not be a good thing if you’ve got kids – and French is a fairly decent baddie.
A score of four-star reviews suggest Harrison has largely got it right again, but a slew of three-star write-ups hints that his festive formula might require rejigging if it’s to continue its critical success next year.