Writer: Alan McHugh
Director: Guy Unsworth
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
It’s that time of year again (oh yes it is) when Qdos Entertainment and The Opera House in Manchester pull out all of the stops to produce one of the biggest pantomimes in the country. This year Cinderella gets a distinct Weatherfield twist as two recent stars of Corrie swap the cobbles for cross-dressing to please the punters of the north-west.
They may be Liverpool born but Connor McIntyre and Les Dennis have become adopted Mancunians with their stints on Coronation Street. Phelan and Michael they may have been in the world of soap but writer Alan McHugh rechristens them Philomena and Michaela, arriving onstage as the garish ugly sisters in dog-themed costumes, reminiscent of a double dose of Cruella Deville, walking their pooches Gayle and Eileen. Perhaps out of experience Dennis feels more comfortable to watch in panto land but from the outset, McHugh is out to send up the star casting of this pantomime and wring out every possible Corrie joke.
As one of the leading pantomimes in the country the pressure is always on for The Opera House to create a spectacle, and a spectacle they produce. Stunning set transformations, sparkle and glitz, and pyrotechnics may be a staple for the large pantomimes these days but there will be very few productions in the country that can rival the incredible coach and horses scene to whisk Cinderella off to the ball after magically transforming from rags to riches. Commercial pantomimes might be an expensive family festive treat, but for little eyes to witness this effect at the close of Act One is one you’ll be talking about way past the interval. Without giving too much away the same technique was used a few years ago in the stage production of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang! and is hugely impressive in this show.
As Prince Charming Gareth Gates steps into the usual pantomime guise as he and Dandini (Jack Wilcox) swap places to woo a love interest. With a Georgian / Regency inspired design the ball scene becomes a lavish, Disney-esque extravagance, spoiled of course by the Uglies’ gold frocks and Bet Lynch bouffants. As Cinderella (Shannon Flynn) starts with a usual ensemble number entitled At The Opera House and just as we are thinking that Charming and Cinders’ love story will become ultra-soppy with a rendition of Bryan Adams’ Everything I Do, director Guy Unsworth injects some more silliness with Buttons and an old classic comedy routine during their duet. As the Fairy Godmother, Hayley-Ria Christian is allowed to exploit her soul voice during a couple of numbers. However, the choice of songs are perhaps not quite interesting enough and unfortunately become more of a ‘filler’ for the show rather than anything more memorable. That said, a slightly psychedelic dancing pumpkin routine from the ensemble felt as trippy as it sounds.
The star of this pantomime, judging by the reaction at the curtain call, is comedian Ben Nickless as Buttons. Not a household name amongst the star casting he is the perfect Silly Billy character and has obviously honed his role over many years in the business. As a fool and obviously talented mimic Nickless rolls out his end of the pier turn. As unsuited as this may sound in 2018 and in such a large venue as The Opera House Nickless’ comic talents have the opposite result. He treats his audience to well-crafted gags miming songs, impersonating Take That and creating a story from a box of his record collection. But it is the front cloth slapstick routine involving the Uglies and Prince Charming that is a genuinely belly-achingly funny finale for the show. Amongst the star casting and expensive trickery Nickless proves that it is genuine funny bones that can make or break a pantomime.
Pantos don’t come much bigger and sparklier than this. Whether you come for the stars, whether you come for the spectacle, whether you come for the laughs or whether you come for Weatherfield this show has the lot.
Runs until 30 December 2018 | Image: Phil Tragen Photography