Thursday, 16 December 2010

Prepare to be Entertained - Panto in Bristol and Weston

Hooray: it’s panto season once more. If British campery, shouting at the top of your voice, rubbish jokes and self-deprecation is your thing, then the West is the place to be.

This year, those living in North Somerset are lucky enough to have easy access to two very different and highly entertaining pantomimes:
Dick Whittington at the Bristol Hippodrome and Cinderella at the Playhouse, Weston.


You don’t expect to be handed a pair of 3D glasses when you go to the theatre to see a traditional panto, do you? That’s what happened when we collected our tickets to Dick Whittington at the Bristol Hippodrome. We were in for a treat.

With her trademark tottering walk, her love of huge hair and that high-pitched, unique cackle, Barbara Windsor is an inspired choice as Fairy Bowbells. One of the first things we hear is that famous, and more than a little annoying, giggle of hers, which transports so many of us back to the days of Carry-On humour. And Eric Potts, the scriptwriter, who has cast himself as a proper pantomime dame in the role of Sarah the Cook, don’t ‘alf milk Babs’ lengthy career to delightful effect.

Here she comes, sitting upon a star, floating high above the stage while the well-choreographed and exquisitely dressed dancers move gracefully to the EastEnders theme tune. She tells us all about the 16 year Nightmare she’s just awoken from (yes, you’ve got it), before joining the troupe to do the “Lambeth Walk,” Oi! From then on there are Walford and Carry-On jokes aplenty, particularly ones involving breasts.

And that Dick loves a good old singsong too! Throughout the performance, Owain Williams, in the title role, unleashes his trained-for-theatre voice onto us, belting out a catalogue of songs by anyone from Take That! to Michael Buble (uh-huh).

For the second year running, it’s Andy Ford who truly steals the show as this year’s panto fool, Idle Jack. With his West Country accent, his silly expressions and his perfect timing, he delivers the mostly deliberately terrible gags with comic genius. Eric Potts makes sure Jack doesn’t forget Portishead in his repertoire but my favourite joke of the night (apart from all the ones about willies) is, understandably, when the cast is about to sail the oceans. “Bristol for the Continent,” shouts Jack. “Weston for the incontinent!”

My four year old was made up with this trip to the theatre and particularly with Dick’s dancing cat, courtesy of Omari Bernard. She shouted at the stage along with everyone else and, when it was time to put on the 3D glasses, she gasped, “They’re coming in my eyes. Are they coming in your eyes? They’re magic glasses.” Spellbound.

The set is spectacular in all its symmetry and sparkle and the costumes simply beautiful on one hand and outrageous on another: I’m thinking here of Sarah the Cook’s outfits, particularly her terrible lime green bikini! Cue Carry On Camping with absolute predictability but, hey, this is pantomime.

At the end of the show, we all have a sing song in ship-shape Bristol fashion. Oh, what fun to shout “Gurt Lush,” and “Cheers Drive,” as loudly as you can and with no inhibitions. Ooh, saucy.


The Playhouse, Weston, delivers a less lavish production than the big city 20 miles up the road, but it’s no less enjoyable because of this. I noticed it last year; the way panto in Weston juxtaposes ballet and dance with absolute tomfoolery to great effect.

And because this year the Playhouse brings us Cinderella, we get two pantomime dames for the price of one in the form of those delightful Ugly Sisters: Ravishing Rita, played by Mark Two, and Wicked Wanda (Jamie Steen). And they cause havoc, those two hags – spraying the audience with super-soakers or with water from their boobs and at one point threatening us with a hosepipe (“Thanks, Linford”), tormenting poor Cinderella, and dressing in the most hideous outfits of leopard and Dalmatian skin, Christmas tree/cracker, cakes and birdcages, among others.

The scriptwriters, Keith and Ben Simmons (with additional material by Lee Waddingham) have done their homework on the local area and jokes about the Bourneville and Bleadon are thrown in, as well as mentions of the outlaying villages. Buttons is played convincingly enough by Sean Wilson (Martin Platt from Coronation Street) and his on-stage presence demands unavoidable reference to Corrie and sour-faced Gail.

Costume design is good, with glitter and twinkle in all the right places. The best scene must be when the girl in rags turns into a princess, accompanied by falling snow and a very cute white Shetland pony. “Did they come from the beach?” asked the four year old who once again wiggled, sang and shouted her way through the show, as much of the audience did.

In the role of Cinders, Kelle Bryan, formerly of the band Eternal, gives good voice to many a tune, the majority of which I’d thankfully never heard before, and this is when the production really comes together, so convincing are Kelle and the cast of dancers, with children from the Tina Counsell School of Dance and Drama completing the family feel.

We boo-ed, we hissed, we cheered, we laughed, we screamed, we shouted our “Behind yous” and our “Oh, no, he didn’ts” but the biggest hysteria from the adults came when the Ugly Sisters, Baron Hardup (John Lyons of A Touch of Frost fame) and Buttons failed to get to sleep in a haunted house. Deliberately misplaced props and costume calamities caused uproarious laughter from the audience, who had completely thawed out by this point.

And now we’re on fire. So much so that I think we’re going to go to the ball all over again!

Oh yes we are!


Dick Whittington is on at the Bristol Hippodrome until 9th January 2011
Cinderella is on at the Playhouse, Weston until 9th January 2011