Blizzards, sub-zero temperatures, Birmingham: few had the tenacity and spirit of endurance to face the trials and tribulations involved in this pilgrimage but the Whingers did. You can, as many do, say what you like about us but don’t say we don’t work hard.
For it was with gusto that the Whingers took on a city at a virtual standstill due to Saturday’s inclement weather in order to witness Joan Collins‘ panto début.
Frankly we would have hitched a ride on the back of a snow plough to be there.
As it was Phil had come fully prepared with a sackful of provisions, extra thermals, heated hair curlers and what ever else may have been needed to get the Whingers through a night stuck on a train somewhere between London and what used to be called Britain’s second city.
But we made it. We saw the very first appearance of La Collins in a pantomime.
Others were not so lucky.
Ten minutes after the curtain was due to rise there were still swathes of empty seats at Birmingham’s Hippodrome: happily so, as the Whingers were told they could move forward if they wished. Not needing to be asked twice they grabbed their many layers of Arctic clothing and laid claim to the centre of the third row of the stalls, ready for Joanie’s close up and gagging for it.
It opens as every panto should with the villain – in this case Nigel Havers‘ King Rat – rising through a trap in swirls of green smoke delivering his lines in verse.
Then we are off to London Town where the townspeople dance in wittily outrageous medieval costumes. The Whingers sighed with relief knowing they were in safe hands. Proper panto. Everything was as it should be. A far, far cry from the travesty of a few days earlier.
This Dick is a panto that rips through the plot leaving ample time for star turns, local and topical references, singalongs and the requisite silliness the genre demands.
Havers is surprisingly energetic and a terrifically hissable King Rat Blake, whose evil deeds are all done to appease his Queen (called Alexis, of course) but “It’s never enough for her indoors”.
But even Havers’ dramatic entrance can’t compete with that of Julian Clary‘s Spirit of the Bells (in fine form referencing the snow: “I’m told there’s 8 inches outside”) whose spectacular entrance in Thunderbird 1 seemed unlikely to be topped.
But then: cue the theme from Dynasty and bring on a giant glitterball. Pyrotechnics flashed as Queen Rat’s throne slowly edged its way to the front of the stage, revolving to reveal the star attraction bookended by two scantily clad males who one can only assume practise exhaustive gym regimes.
Scrunched into a sequined outfit Joanie has gone for the Pauline Prescott-as-well-heeled dominatrix look. Her opening song-and-dance routine redefines the term but with a rather endearing air of slight bewilderment and not a little guidance she gets through it like the trouper she is. There’s a soupçon of Mae West in her last film Sextette about it and who can grumble at that.
Cracking her rat’s tail whip whilst puffing and pouting her lines with her usual stilted speech mannerisms she proceeds to wrestle gags to the floor and below it until they’re six feet under. If she’d beaten them over the head with a brace-weight they couldn’t have ended up any deader. Let us just say that comedy is not Joanie’s forte. But hey, we strapped tennis rackets strapped to our feet see this. It’s Joan Collins in panto! It would be would be rude, nay, downright impossible to take your eyes of a 77 year old icon making her first appearance in the world of panto and not sit there with an inane grin on your face much like the wise men and the shepherds must have done two millennia ago.
One delicious disaster was sadly averted when Joan’s wig became entangled in one of the dancing rat’s whiskers which was tugging dangerously at her syrup. After frenzied fumbling the rat managed to separate himself and save the show from some front page headlines. But only by a whisker.
It’s Clary who provides the panto Araldite and the glamour: Jeffrey Holland‘s underwritten Dame Felicity Fitzwarren loses out on the outrageous costume budget to Clary and even Joan herself only gets two costume changes – but that’s still two more than Hasseloff’s Captain Hook.
If Havers, Collins, Clary and Holland weren’t enough, there’s also panto veteran Keith Harris with Orville and Cuddles – something for the kiddies and surprisingly providing something for the adults too. Perhaps we were in the right frame of mind or just relieved to have made it at all but his well-honed act provided some decent titters.
We still lament the absence of a slosh scene, a principal boy, a song-sheet (although there was a singalong) and sweet throwing. But at least we had:
- Topical references: King Rat is an ex-banker and leader of the rat coalition
- Gags that make you groan:
- I used to work in a bowling alley?
- Was it a real job?
- No, just ten-pin.
- Self-references: “Are you on the poster,” Rat sneers to Dick
Plus some wonderful choreography from Paul Robinson, the obligatory bit of Glee (90% of this year’s pantos must surely be doing “Don’t Stop Believing”), Julian Clary singing “Wand’rin’ Star” and Joan Collins singing “I Want To Be Evil”. What’s not to like?
Who knows, but the rest of the audience was strangely unexcited. Perhaps they were worried about getting home; perhaps they couldn’t quite believe their eyes. Yes, it was a bit shaky (it was the first preview) and yes Mr Clary was a bit blue at times (thankfully) and yes it did have that Churchill dog from the car insurance adverts in it.
Perhaps the big difference was that they hadn’t sat through Peter Pants at the New Wimbledon two nights before. If they think this is bad….