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Changes in Panto

December 17, 2014

As I mentioned last week, I went to my first panto in 33 years. I enjoyed myself so much that yes, I’ll be booking again for next year, without hesitation.

While there, I was also amused by how things have changed.

The stories remain true, and the old favourite routines are still there – “it’s behind you” still happens, the special “hello” one character demands, the “clapping off” song, all present and correct.

The show still takes place in a cardboard cut-out set, with the villagers opening the show, numbers boosted by the local junior dance school. And you get the ponies drawing the carriage.

And you get the stars. Well known names, doing something many of them look forward to doing every year.

It interested me, though, how this extravaganza is paid for.

Video seems to be both the draw and the money-maker. There’s no communal “drop down” song-sheet for a sing-a-long any more. It’s all screens when a show wants to interact, now. Before both acts, it was also used for another purpose – a Littlewoods avert was played. Now, I’m in two minds about this. It seemed wrong to show promotional material to such a captive audience. On the other hand, a life-sized Myleene Klass to enjoy… jury out…

It was the “before the show” stuff that was the even harder sell, though. A choice of 3 toys out of 6 for £15 suggests parents coughing up more than the price of a ticket to get the set. An extra 50p (on the standard £4 programme price the theatre chain usually set) included 2 glow-sticks, though, so there’s a spark of generosity.

No sweets given away either – chucking stuff from the stage seems out of fashion for various reasons, but no healthy snacks in the foyer either. Not that I care either way, to be honest… but then I didn’t have kids with me, I guess.

The only other mild sadness was a 3D film sequence of skeletons, skulls, ghosts and goolies (I don’t want to be grabbed by the ghosts, or by the…. nicely set up by it) got more audience reaction than almost anything else in the show. Replacing the time honoured guys in sheets with video just seemed lazy, somehow – and film can’t react as a real person would to the audience. Shame.

Some things improved, though. The script managed to be clean of filthier innuendo and 70s sitcom stereotyping yet sound fresh and funny. The leading lady was an example to young women rather than just an ornament, and the whole thing looked and felt of a quality easily worth the price of a ticket.

If you can get seats and want a special few hours this Christmas, I’d say finding your nearest panto is an excellent idea. In a family or even making a lone escape, I’ve a feeling you’ll love every minute.



And on that note, I’m off for my Christmas break. Back posting 14th January. Until then, “happy Christmas” to Christian readers, “happy holidays” to all… and all the best for 2015.

Cinderella (New Wimbledon Theatre)

December 10, 2014

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 6th December 2014.)

With a heavy jolt, I suddenly realised that I’d not seen a professional pantomime since, er, gosh… 1981! John Inman in “Mother Goose” at the Victoria Palace Theatre, since you ask. Partly it’s down to those “difficult teenage years,” partly the fact they don’t do “professional panto” in my area so it means going across London to more enlightened and better equipped theatres.

Also, I wanted a really “traditional” panto – not some PC “we wrote the songs and went all-inclusive” effort. Nope, I wanted traditional jokes, proper pop songs mixed with famous stars and real ponies drawing the coach on stage. The old and loved “it’s behind you” routine and the odd gag which the adults ‘get’ and that leaves the kids wondering…

… Family First Entertainment at the New Wimbledon Theatre delivered the lot. In spades. More stars on a single stage than the West End usually muster, a script that keeps young and old entertained  – without a single smutty joke – for over 2 hours, and it looks good all the way through.

amy and mike
Amy Lennox is not just a “fairytale pretty” (with a little ‘edge’ to keep her interesting too) Cinderella, she also finds a lovely optimistic outlook in the role and proves a safe pair of hands to carry the show. Her extensive West End experience shows, particularly managing to make the inevitable “Let It Go” sound fresh and actually improve on the original. A delightfully giggly admission that “I’ve forgotten my line” while dealing with the constant trauma of microphone failure just proves how endearing a leading lady she is.

Around her, Liam Doyle as her Prince Charming does everything expected of him, including a superior duet and some nice comic timing when required.

Star billing, though, goes to Linda Gray who makes her panto debut as Fairy Godmother. No doubt her lines will come more easily as she gets used to the part, but already the joy in her face when the audience reacted was lovely to see. Hooked on panto by the end of the run, I think.

tim wayne
Already hooked on panto, Tim Vine as Buttons, Wayne Sleep as Dandini,

mathew and team
and father and son act Matthew Kelly and Matthew Rixon as Ugly Sisters Mel B and Cheryl (yes, really!). Also worthy of note is James Doherty as Baron Hardup – who really should take the advice of changing the name of his oil company to BP, perhaps…

All deliver the class which can only come from years of experience. Vine’s one-liners and comic adlibs (one shocked little Sleep, plus one joke that I’m sure won’t be told again in the run) win out over the groan-inducing puns; moreover,  he knows a great sequence when he gets one, and is generous enough to share it with those setting it up (I’ll say no more, for fear of spoilers).

Supporting a pair of spectacularly nasty ladies, the chorus and children (Blue team, my show) fill the stage, with the young page announcer doing a noticeable sterling job. Her confident younger sister, Olive, also made a stage appearance (I know this because I happened to have bought the seat that was beside her rightly proud mum!) and charmed everyone – helping Tim Vine deliver a neat pre-finale.

Some amusing pre-show projections and (rather last-decade, really) 3D effects reminded us that panto evolves, but most of all the noise of everybody joining in reminded me that when panto is done properly, in fact, done to the highest standard it is here, with an experienced and eager to entertain cast, it’s like nothing else in theatre.

Will I be leaving it another 33 years? “Oh No I won’t.” Will I be booking for the 2015 panto as soon as tickets go on sale? “Oh Yes I Will.” And should you see this right now? The only place the queue for tickets should be is… behind you!



(photo credit, throughout review: Craig Sugden, used by kind permission).

What happened to the mugshot?

December 3, 2014

It’s really starting to annoy me.

I’m talking about what has gone missing from far too many theatre programmes recently.

In the old days, the programme had a cast list, then pages of “head shots,” (admittedly, some dated, some hideously taken, a few just plain hideous) with the name and achievements of the cast member underneath. Writing an opinion for the site, I just matched headshot to body on stage, and it was fine.

Now, those headshots have started to vanish. Instead, you do get the names, but no photo. Those are restricted to a few pages of “photo montage.” Actors wallying around in rehearsal, or posing for the photographer on stage. If you are lucky, the photos are captioned and the characters are in full costume. Sometimes, they are not.

Result, you can’t always be totally sure that you are praising (or, of course, slagging off) the right thespian. Worth remembering, programme compilers, that for those sitting more than a few rows from the front, faces are not always clear…

Actually, while we are on the subject, I’d also like back the list of song titles in a musical’s programme (it’s embarrassing having to ask a kindly PR for the show for them when writing up), the “theatre quiz” which used to pass the time nicely during the interval, and the smart “first performed on” date title page listing the cast, producers etc, plus a nice logo of the show.

Call me “Mr Nostalgic” if you like, but I’d also like the tiny “production credits” restored too… it was kind of nice to know that “wardrobe care is by Persil” don’t you think? Oh, and mixing the articles would be good – make them less about what’s on in the rest of the chain’s theatres.

And please, on the first of the month, start selling new programmes. Those of us who go regularly get angry when for two months we get the same pulp wrapped around the current production’s scrappy 4 pages of cast montage and vague scene-setting description (sans captions / list of musical numbers etc).

Not a lot to ask for my four quid now, is it?!

Should Shakespeare Shuffle Off?

November 26, 2014

Jemima Lewis, a journalist on the Telegraph

thinks so. On stage, anyway. Too hard to understand and anyone laughing at the jokes is pretentious as nobody REALLY “gets” them any more, and they were not funny in the first place.

So, basically, a gravedigger waving a skull and declaiming “alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well” isn’t hilarious – particularly if the grave digger inserts a cigarette in the skull’s mouth first. Well, to be fair, the journalist was a woman, and that’s “schoolboy” humour I’d say… rather proving that funny is in the mind of the beholder, except that which school girl wouldn’t find the idea of a bloke trying to attract her by wearing yellow stockings hilarious? And doesn’t everyone laugh at word-mangling ramblers like Dogberry?

And all is Shakespeare. I’ve written at length in this blog about the WWET (World’s Worst English Teacher) who appears related to that journalist’s one, for doing the same thing – reading “round the class” out of the script. No feeling, no context. Nothing.

As I’ve also said, I had already seen Bill the Quill’s output done on stage – so WWET could (and now, hopefully does) rot somewhere like the Wackford Squeers Home for Underachieving Educational Folk. So WWET had no effect on me whatsoever. I ignored the idiot and “did my own thing” very successfully, as it turned out, in the exams – and now of course earn a living from my writing.

Of course WWET and that ilk cause the damage that make an otherwise sensible journalist publish such ideas. It’s just because the most vital thing of all is missed. As I’ve already mentioned… “context.”

Most of us grew up watching American films and television programmes. Sorry, American movies and TV shows. An educated (and, frankly, hormonal teenage few in search of a bit of pre-internet titillation) ventured further in to “World Cinema,” i.e. “those films you have to read as well as look at.”

Even the most well-travelled don’t truly understand every nuance of another country’s arts output… but from the “context” of the story, environment and speech-patterns, we figure it out and understand perfectly well.

And Shakespeare is no different. We can tell our “patches” from our “drabs” by the costumes they wear, scenery around them and the tone of voice used – provided the director is inventive enough. Is it any more baffling than a reference to “pop fly” or “flic” in a modern film made overseas? I think not.

Had I the money or a time-machine, I’d have made certain every teenager in the country was able to see the 2012 Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Not as starrily cast as the 2013 Smith / Walliams / Grandage version, but so simple and inventive, anyone (and I took a ‘first timer’ myself) not only “understood,” but laughed uproariously. The “Chav Dream” as it was known, played by everyday builders and a population that wouldn’t look out of place in “Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” (as the production indeed ended) was entertainment, pure, simple and as easy to understand as a John Lewis Penguin.

For sure, ban bad Shakespeare interpreters, but keep the Bard off the stage? Not since Cromwell, my dear.


It seems it is about the price tag (sorry, Jessie J)

November 19, 2014

Last week’s entry got a lot of interest (; and also coincidentally seemed to be a theme on journalist and reviewer Mark Shenton’s website too (

Those on theatreforum noted that it wasn’t really “dynamic pricing” as such which upset them – though when prices fell, it was annoying of course – but a lack of clarity in pricing.

Mark Shenton highlighted that too, noticing how the same seat could be three different prices at one show, depending on the date, and that you could save nearly £100 either choosing a different date or even picking a seat a couple of seats away with the same view…

Expanding the them by both was how hard it was to decide whether to book in advance or wait in case of a deal. Those flexible enough to be able to get into London quickly at will and only needing a single ticket (and not fussy where they sat or even what they saw) were doing fine. Getting the tickets they wanted at a good price.

Those living further away and leading busier lives, however, were less happy. Forced to make a choice or “sweat it out.”

I’ve been in both camps myself; right now, it’s really towards the latter to a great extent. I am luckier than most in that invitations to review balance out tickets I pay for (plus, all tickets I do buy are “tax deductibles,” so that’s an automatic saving) but even I get caught sometimes, having to buy seats to take a slot in the diary that I know would otherwise vanish. Yes, I know where the “cheap but good” seats are, but even so, I feel the frustration of overseas visitors too.

The clearer pricing is, and the greater range of “fixed prices,” the more audience members will benefit, I think I’d conclude. Another one for the marketing department to ponder, I’d say.

Does ticket price influence success?

November 12, 2014

I kept quiet when “I Can’t Sing,” “Stephen Ward” and “From Here To Eternity” closed earlier this year. All that could be said then was said by others, I felt, but now I’ve had a thought. Was it dynamic pricing that was to blame?  None of the three shows used it, beyond cutting prices to draw the crowds, but I wonder if its prevalence at other shows is harming the industry in a more general way?

Discounting already does, according to some sources. Big shows need “advance box office” revenue guaranteed. Knowing that there could be savings means regular theatregoers don’t book that far ahead. Indeed, when “I Can’t Sing” dropped from £65 to £32.50 in the final weeks, I sold more tickets in 5 days than in the previous 6 months. All to regular theatregoing readers, if my inbox was accurate.

What I’m talking about is when it goes in the other direction. “Skylight” opened to rave reviews. So good, premium seats went up from £97.50 to £125, top seats around them added a fiver, second price £2.50.  And the online community were hacked off. Really annoyed.  I remember the same thing happening with “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” some years ago, with the same reaction.

So what I wonder is this: At one time, theatre used to be all about “enjoyment.” It was a pleasure for the audience to buy a ticket and see a show.

Now, I’m wondering if too much of the glitter has rubbed off for too many people, and they can see the hard business underneath. Worse, with dynamic pricing – the changing of box office prices (what used to be called “moving the rope”) that was done secretly, is now very open and clear for all to see and discuss.

Are we serving up too much reality with our entertainment now, and could retaining a little mystique actually help shows to a longer run? Interestingly, “Memphis,” the hit of the season, has just announced an extended booking period. The seats are an easy sell, but the producers have been not only clever, but extraordinarily courteous to their audiences. The prices from late March 2015 have been revised, with a larger (but not overwhelming) block of “premium” seats… but also many seats in the rear stalls and dress circle down in price as low as £30.

It means they’ll have sold those seats in advance, and not face losing anything if a circle has to close on a quiet date. They’ll take the interest money on the advance booking, have happy customers in better seats than they may otherwise afford, and everybody wins. Now that IS dynamic thinking…

We Will Remember Them

November 5, 2014

“In Flanders fields, the poppies blow,” so runs McCrae’s poem.

As most people at the moment will tell you, the same is true of the moat at the Tower of London. I was there at twilight on Saturday, and can honestly say that as a piece of art it was memorable for all the right reasons.

I’m amazed at the scale of it. All four sides of the moat filled with poppies, with more cascading from a tower and in a “wave” on one side near the embankment. They’re big too. The size of a large man’s hand, mostly… I was lucky enough to have ordered one back in August, and now wonder where I’ll display it, given the size.

It was a mostly British crowd, and I’m not sure why the press were saying how dangerous it was, as everybody just made space for each other as we filed round, as us Brits do. Sure, a lane on Tower Bridge is closed to traffic, and there’s one “pinch point” in front of the main display on the drawbridge side, but with great humour, everyone who wished to, got to stand at the rail. That said, “go early or late” (it’s wonderfully floodlit) is good advice.

In that wonderful atmosphere everybody was talking to each other, at random. And one of the topics was who had indeed ordered one. Those who had were joking about which one was “theirs,” (it was a good joke, as there are hundreds of thousands on view), those who had not were congratulating the rest on being “lucky,” and everybody was hoping nobody would re-sell them online at a profit – unless raising money for charity.

Most of all, though, people were saying the same thing. In the same place. The corner of the Tower from which you could see the moat along Tower Bridge and also the moat on the main drawbridge entrance side of the Tower… probably half a million poppies in all…



We WILL remember them.



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