WORTH A LOOK?: ****
WHEN?: 12/12/20, runs to 3/1/21 RUNTIME: 135 minutes (including 30-minute interval)
WHERE?: London Palladium UPDATE: Lockdown means this production closed early with its last performance 15/12/20
We’ve never seen Julian Clary cry before but at the standing ovation when this socially distanced production is so rapturously received at its 1st official preview he appears to be on the verge of tears.
- Read on for reasons including why this production is a triumph in this pandemic year
We’re not giving this 5* for the 1st time in its now 5-year run because it’s not quite the show it was but the fact that it comes anywhere close in these pandemic times is truly remarkable.
Barbara Windsor, who died this week, is one of the names of the dozens of former Palladium panto stars, including Danny La Rue, Dick Emery, Frankie Howard, Youth Joyce, Cliff Richard, Peter Sellers, Cilla Black and Ronnie Corbett, whose faces on actual posters from yesteryear decorate the stage.
What we’re treated to is some of the most memorable skits from the previous 4 productions, including the Olivier Award-winning Dick Whittington, as well as Clary’s terrific wit applied to our current predicament.
Clary’s in cracking form as the Covid monitor. ‘It’s either a prick in the hand or a probe down the throat. Charlie Stemp likes both.’
Perhaps it’s in the delivery because written down they look nowhere near as fruity or withering as when spoken but he’s retrained as a beautician in lockdown. ‘Do I do facials?’ Only if it’s quiet.’
Elsewhere he rhymes ‘cosmopolitan’ with ‘where’s my wallet gone?’ as Petula Clark’s Downtown becomes a celebration of nearby Soho and as he appears to confuse Pantoland with Poundland he remarks: ‘They’re very similar. This has slightly better lighting.’
On hygiene he quips: ‘We’re all dipped in bleach and wearing masks. That sounds like a typical Friday night for me.’ And later: ‘We’ve proved we can all laugh even behind masks. Well some of us knew that already.’
This panto mash-up relies heavily on variety, as befitting the posters from the 27 previous pantomime productions littering the stage, and when Elaine Paige returns to duet with Clary on I Know Him So Well titled I Know Dick So Well. They’re referring to Stemp’s Dick and when Paige utters the retooled lyrics, particularly ‘I’ve been sizing up your Dick’, the house is well and truly brought down.
Clary is a master of improvisation and the rest of the cast are clearly trying to stifle their own laughing often and, when Yarrow dries, Clary references Stemp in Mary Poppins saying ‘Charlie’s chimney’s never dry’.
Beverley Knight, who also appears emotional at the curtain call, sings a mixture of originals and covers and we’ve a sneaking suspicion she’s this country’s best ever live singer. Her interactions with ventriloquist Paul Zerdin are gold.
Diversity contribute two acrobatic dances, Gary Wilmot is back with some of his greatest hits and Nigel Havers clearly revels in being the butt of most jokes. Referring to Covid, he says: ‘I used to cough to cover a fart. Now I fart to cover a cough.’
At a time when theatres are still struggling to open, the joy this pared-down production is bringing its audience and the work it is offering to the West End cannot be overestimated. The Palladium’s panto has been an absolute triumph for the last four years and is even more so in 2020.