The Theatreguide.London Review
Victoria Palace Theatre Winter 2004-2005
This particularly colourful and elaborate Christmas panto has much to delight family audiences, though its structure as a star vehicle means that some traditional elements have gone by the wayside.
(Pause to explain for the non-British: The Christmas Pantomime is not a mime show, but a musical comedy built loosely on a fairy tale plot, with interpolated pop songs, guest stars - usually from TV soaps – and a whole collection of traditions and rituals that are part of the fun.
At least one male role is usually played by an actress and one comic female role by a man. There's lots of audience interaction - 'Behind you! Behind you!' and the like - and a mix of slapstick for the kiddies and over-their-heads wordplay for the adults.)
Just about every British theatre outside London has a panto in December and January - like the ballet companies' Nutcrackers, they're money-spinners - and you can gauge the importance of a town by how far down the B-list of TV names it has to go for its stars.
A bit unusually, there are two in the West End this year - see our review of Aladdin for the other.
This version of Snow White, which has actually played Birmingham, Manchester, Southampton and Bristol in previous holiday seasons, is built around comedian Paul O'Grady in his drag persona as Lily Savage, foul-talking Liverpudlian trollop.
(Another pause: it may seem odd for a family show to star a drag act that got its start in gay clubs. But actually Lily has become very much a mainstream star, who has had her own TV series and hosted game shows. O'Grady also frequently appears as himself on TV.)
With Paul/Lily playing the Wicked Queen, the basic joke is that, no matter how elegant the villainess tries to be, she can't escape Lily's cynical attitude, quick wit and bad taste in clothes.
And that premise, which allows a lot of leeway for ad libs, self-referential jokes ('The prince requests an audience.' - 'He can have this one. It's awful.') and audience interaction, fits very nicely into the panto conventions and traditions.
It does, however, squeeze out some features audiences might expect from a panto. With one comic star at the centre, there's not much room for anyone else to get laughs, and there are no broad slapstick sequences, panto horses or secondary clowns to steal the spotlight, except for the fairly feeble wordplay and funny voices of Fogwell Flax as the spoonerism-prone pageboy Muddles.
What we get instead are some elaborate sets and big musical numbers, including a lovely ballet of forest animals, and a pretty - if, as tradition demands, fairly uninteresting - pair of lovers in Dianne Pilkington and Andrew Kennedy
And of course there's also the crowd-pleasing troupe of seven height-challenged gentlemen, who manage to slip in some of the ancient jokes that are part of the panto ritual ('Did you put the cat out?' -'It wasn't on fire.').
One subtle running gag is how close they can flirt with expectation without incurring the wrath of Disney - the dwarfs have names like Wheezy, Snoozy and Blusher, and go around singing 'Ho heigh.'
In short, this is a panto that relies heavily on colourful spectacle and the attraction of one central star, and perhaps only the most hardened traditionalists will bemoan the absence of other elements of the genre.
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