It’s panto time again. ‘Oh no it isn’t!’ I hear you shout. ‘It’s only November.’ But like Christmas offers in the shops, panto seems to start earlier every year. Christmas is when people feel compelled to take their families to a show, and local theatres often make a third or more of their annual income from panto. So as long as there’s an audience the temptation to extend is difficult to resist.
Oldham Coliseum opened Dick Whittington last week, and it’s a cracker. The Coliseum has a long history of panto from the days of Kenneth Alan Taylor, a legendary panto writer, director and Dame who began his career at the Coliseum in 1959 and is still at it, directing the panto at Nottingham Playhouse this year. In Oldham, the Dame’s bonnet has been passed to Finetime Fontayne, who is in his tenth year – it would be eleven but in 2016 he took the famous theatrical blessing ‘break a leg’ rather too seriously and had to retire hurt. He’s back and on terrific form as Saucy Sarah Suet, whose lust for Alderman Fitzwarren is only exceeded by her capacity to make terrible pirate jokes. Oooh arrr.
Fontayne has written the panto with director Kevin Shaw, and they stick to the traditional form. Dick is played by Nina Shadi in tights, thigh-length boots and a firm bodice, a classic principal boy, while Shorelle Helpin plays Dick’s inamorata, Alice Fitzwarren, with lots of energy and style – and a good voice. The singing throughout is extremely good – any panto cast that can pull off the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations with all the harmonies has some serious vocal talent, exploited ruthlessly by MD Dave Brintley.
Like all traditional pantos there’s a Good Fairy and a Demon King, only here he becomes King Rat, superbly rendered by Simeon Ruby – I hissed and booed myself hoarse – and Liz Carney uses her magic powers to transform her eager if hapless Fairy Nell into a ship’s captain.
Every panto has an Idle Jack, the Dame’s feckless son, incarnated here as Silly Billy Suet. Richard J Fletcher is brilliant at this stuff. He connects with the audience from the moment he comes on, and encourages us in all the usual tropes from ‘he’s behind you’ to the song sheet at the end, and he does it with so much energy I feared for my health. Another extraordinary physical performance comes from Miley Rose as Tom the Cat, who inspires you to think ‘How on earth did she do that? Oh my, she’s doing it again.’’’
Every panto has a chorus, sometimes professional, sometimes rendered by the local dance school; and sometimes a dance school chorus requires a certain amount of sympathetic give from the audience. No such sympathy was required here – choreographer Beverley Norris-Edmunds has made sure they’re very good indeed, and they had a lot to do – only their height gave the game away.
Designer Celia Perkins has clearly done panto before – and quite a few here at Oldham – as she’s created a good looking set and a number of apt costumes which tell you everything you need to know about the characters the moment you see them, especially Mr Fontayne’s outfits, which become increasingly surreal as the show proceeds.
But the best thing about this production, and Oldham pantos generally, is that they don’t use actors from TV soaps or random comedians. The shows are put together by a team who’ve worked together for years, who understand their audience, and who know that next year’s audience depends on how good this year’s panto is, so they make it better and better.
Which is probably why this is the best Oldham panto I’ve ever seen. Oh yes it is!
Dick Whittington is at Oldham Coliseum until January 13, 2017. To buy tickets, click here.