Reviewed by Pete and Alice Millington
Billed as the greatest pantomime of them all, Cinderella is performing at Birmingham Hippodrome until Sunday 29th January 2012.
The annual pantomime at the Hippodrome has taken place every year since 1957 and this year's festive extravaganza maintains the theatre's national reputation in providing another splendid feast of costume, music, romance and humour.
At the top of the cast bill this year is popular star of British theatre, West End musical and television, funny man Brian Conley playing a brilliantly comic Buttons, perfectly complemented by the equally engaging actress and Oxo mum Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother. Whilst Conley and Bellingham may not be international stars of the magnitude of last year's cast headliner Joan Collins, they are to their credit utterly comfortable and confident with the unique genre of theatre that is live Christmas pantomime in front of a packed and expectant audience of Brummies, assorted West Midlanders and those up from Gloucestershire.
Back in the days when the mosh pits of Birmingham theatres were crammed with disreputable Victorian hoodlums known by such strange names as Peaky Blinders, concealing under their jackets assorted rotten vegetables taken from Bull Ring market trolleys, Ms Collins might have been on the receiving end of an irreverent passed-its-sell-by-date cabbage or two for the performance I witnessed at last year's Hurst Street panto, though the excuse given was that the great lady was affected by a dose of Brummagem flu rather than it being a case of a prima donna ego experiencing the culture shock of Xmas panto. But in any case, production company Qdos Entertainment appear to have taken no such risks with the cast again this season in their choice of consumate, and safe, panto pros Conley and Bellingham.
...and not forgetting Basil Brush in the role of Baron Basil, showing that another unique thing about panto is that it even allows hand puppets to come out of their comfort zones. Whilst I think of it, there was a great spontaneous moment when Brian Conley moves away from Basil in mid conversation and the puppet continues to talk to him in the direction that he had just been standing. Allowing Basil to continue speaking at thin air for a moment whilst sharing a bemused smirk with the audience, Conley eventually says "I'm over here Basil" to which the puppet turns his head with an expression of surprise (if such a thing is possible from a stitched object) and replies "Yes I knew that" then gazing down at the puppeteer hidden beneath the desk he adds "...and so does he now".
It is this great atmosphere of spontaneous comedy, slap-stick along with the even more unpredictable moments of audience participation that makes truly successful pantomime, just as much as the big sets, the lavish costumes, the high tech effects and all of the well-polished singing and dancing.
Just like Joe Pasquale in panto 2010, Brian Conley makes his entrance and grabs the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, exuding the ironically smarmy self confidence and natural comic agility which he is best known for and keeping us transfixed and chortling then on in for the next couple of hours. Of course there is always a thin line between keeping the kiddies entertained and firing out sufficient quips, double entendres and innuendos to have the adults sniggering if not gaffawing in their seats. My fellow panto critic and nine year old daughter Alice judged Conley to fall more on the side of the adults - somewhere between Pasquale whose helium-baloon-funny voice gives him the advantage as far as the kidlets are concerned anyway, regardless of the content of his jokes and last year's funny man, Julian Clary, who just doesn't do gags aimed at anyone either under the age of consent or generally having moral values to the right of Enid Blyton.
Cinderella is played by Catherine Rooney, an aptly beautiful and convincingly innocent young slip of a girl and her suitor Prince Charming is Matthew Goodgame with Dan Burton as Dandini. The Ugly Sisters are David Robbins and Martin Ramsdin, men in tights and wigs would you believe? And oh yes they certainly are. David and Martin are a well seasoned partnership who have played panto dames seperately for some 20 years and as a duo specifically playing the Ugly Sisters around the nation since 2003.
A couple of unexpected stars of the show turned out to be a horse, yes a real life one, and a pony both supplied by horse trainer Tommy Roberts. The horse in particular was on stage for a good five to ten minutes, not only blissfully unphased by the audience but performing it's own party pieces in good old Ed the talking horse fashion.
This year's Hippodrome panto is big on storyline, characters, costume and humour and less big on the technology (e.g. no Dalek, Transformer and Power Ranger types who have a tendency of turning up in startling high-tech cameo parts in past pantos), so perhaps could be described as a slight nod back in the direction of traditional panto format, though there were some impressive incidents of flying things both over the stage and audience, including Buttons on a motorcycle, which give the added "wow" factor we have come to expect at Hippodrome pantomimes.
No daleks then, nor rotten cabbages from the mosh pit for struggling egos this year, just lashings of classy, funny, bright escapism and magic.
You can not beat a Hippodrome festive pantomime as far as I'm concerned. Bring on Robinson Crusoe next year as I can't wait for some good old swashbuckling frolics!
And as for Basil Brush? Altogether boys and girls - "he's a puppet!!!"