Writers: Phil Lowe & David Bown
Director: Joyce Branagh
Even away from the big cities, audiences in Yorkshire have regularly, year on year, a choice of high-class pantomimes, to some extent working to a formula, but also with original and distinctive touches. As a generalisation these work on the “If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it” principle, stylish, funny, good-to-look-at affairs with modest numbers on stage and in the pit and a reliance on established favourites.
At Harrogate, for instance, Phil Lowe and David Bown have been writing the pantos since 2009 and know better than most how to please the people of Harrogate, their use of local reference unforced and amusing. Joyce Branagh is a force in pantomime in the area, with many Huddersfield Christmases behind her as director as well as being the writer of this year’s Doncaster panto.
Harrogate’s unique selling point, however, is Tim Stedman. In 21 years panto he has established himself as what the programme calls “Harrogate’s much-loved innocent buffoon”. That sums it up really. As Buttons everything about him is extremely silly: walk, voice, make-up. He is the complete droll and clown, his jokes are tortuous and often childish, he demands that the audience call back to him a full rhyming couplet, not just the usual greeting – and they do because his command of audience response is total.
How do you do Cinderella with a cast of five, plus a small dance team? By casting people who are as hard-working and versatile as they are talented. Christina Harris, for instance, in the title role, takes on the task on introducing the whole show (there’s no fairy to do that) and is a lively, no-nonsense heroine who bears the brunt of the singing. Colin Kiyana is a fine upstanding Prince, but also very funny, with his self-parodying version of the thigh-slapping of old-style Principal Boys.
A glance at the programme reveals no Fairy Godmother – no matter, Stedman’s on hand for a spot of unlikely doubling. However, the outstanding example of multi-tasking comes from Janine Mellor as an Ugly Sister, Moaning Minnie, and Dandini, the latter played pretty much as a straight man to the Prince and the subject of many knowing “Where’s Dandini?” gags when Minnie is on stage. Mellor and Richard Emerson (Mardy Margaret) are a very funny and nicely contrasted pair of Ugly Sisters, smelly social climbers, but the traditional Dame role is a touch diluted.
Foxton’s designs make an impact even before the start, with his clocks-around-the proscenium arch motif. There is a fine transformation scene and the familiar routines include a smart variation on The Twelve Days of Christmas, with the partridge replaced by “a water-pistol shaped like a tree” – and you can guess what Buttons does at the end of each of the twelve days!
Runs until January 16th 2022