Saturday, 26 December 2020

REVIEW: PANTOMONIUM! The Pantomime at the Blackpool Grand Theatre (Online)

Martin Dodds, the producer behind UK Productions usually puts on nearly a dozen Pantomimes each year including shows at the very fine Theatre Royal Bath and the magnificent Frank Matcham designed Blackpool Grand Theatre. There is something magical about seeing Pantomime in these wonderful old buildings that resonate of all the past performers who have trod the boards there that make a pilgrimage to see their annual production a joy. This year it had proved impossible with Pantomimes cancelled before they opened and even those that opened like the Palladium, The Mayflower Southampton and the Lighthouse in Poole closing after a few performances due to Covid restrictions or worse illness in the cast. There are currently eighty online pantomimes listed by British Theatre Guide and the challenge is how to adapt this interactive family experience to the small screen. Jon Monie (scriptwriter) and Martin Dodds make a solid attempt in their version Pantomonium filmed on the stage of the Blackpool Grand.

They start by assembling a stellar award-winning small team. Monie won Best Script for his 2019 Beauty and Beast at GB Pantomime Awards, Tom Lister won Best Villain for his Captain Hook and Olivia Birchenough won Best Leading lady in Cinderella at the 2017 awards and Katie Hill won Best choreography at the Blackpool Grand in the 2020 Awards. They add to the team Steve Royle, the madcap comedian who came third in the 2020 Britain’s Got Talent TV show, although as he mocks himself, if Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world, who knows who is third fastest! To complete the cast is the usual Dame from the Theatre Royal Bath, the delightful gentle Nick Wilton. Together they have the experience to stage and perform Pantomime business.

The Pantomonium story, like the Evolution online show in Sheffield, is set in the Pantomime Emporium that the Dame runs, and the Villain is out to steal The Pantomime Tales Magic book (in Sheffield the Essence of Pantomime). The focus of the show is not the Tales themselves but the great Pantomime business and sketches that are a staple of the genre. In the shop they give us the wonderfully visual gag of descending the stairs behind the counter (and later a lift and trapdoor) and the rising sausage gag such a regular feature of Kitchen slosh scenes. They do a quick-fire version of usual routine the “12 days of Christmas” although without the props (presumably for Covid reasons) it is just a gentle reminder of the show-stopping routine we love. Much more effective is an adapted version of “if I were not in Pantomime” with new action based on the four characters who have dominated our lives in 2020 the Postman, Vaccinator, PE instructor and Politician. It is performed in the usual frenetic way leaving Lister breathless for the rest of the Scene! And then of course no Pantomime would be complete without the Famous Ghost Bench scene, here with a fresh twist to end it.

Steve Royle gets to perform some of his BGT routines with his juggling different size balls and introduces a very silly Ventriloquist act performed with the uses of Covid Face Mask on both himself and the monkey, reminiscent of the old fifties act Peter Brough and Archie Andrews, a vent act performed on the radio! In neither case could you see their lips move! The challenge for all these routines is the lack of audience response (although some appear to be occasionally added) which mutes the atmosphere and must be sorely missed by the performers. They do frequently look pleadingly down the camera into our homes, but the response is sadly missed. They do at least cleverly incorporate a traditional call out in one scene with “behind U”.

Hill does get to choreograph a routine over Zoom with the Girls from the Ensemble and a chorus of eight in individual Zoom windows. It is another good 2020 reference, well done and a show highlight. They also have some fun with Wilton doubling up as Dame and Fairy Tales and Royle as playing both Billy and the villain Killjoy meaning these characters must work with an extreme form of social distancing by never appearing in the same scene!

It is an affectionate short form pantomime in one act, full of silly business and jokes, although I suspect saving the best new gags for next year rather than making them available online! At £25.50 it feels on the expensive side with the usual range of £10 to £15 for a stream and misses one of the key elements of the genre with Audience interaction. But with Christmas Terrestrial Free TV missing the presence of original comedy geniuses like Morecambe and Wise and relying heavily on Game Shows, it does provide a welcome alternative for family viewing. Runs to 3rd January.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★

Seat: Online | Price of Ticket: £25.50
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