Writers – Alan McHugh and Matt Slack
Director – Michael Harrison
Things may feel a little different this year, both on and off stage, but panto is back in Birmingham – and it’s back with a familiar line-up as well as some new faces, and as much glitz and spectacle as ever.
This year it’s Goldilocks and the Three Bears, though apart from one brief sequence there is no resemblance to the original story at all. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a circus run by Dame Betty Barnum and her daughter Goldilocks. The circus has run out of money and is under threat from an evil rival, Count Ramsay of Erinsborough. All seems lost, then salvation arrives in the form of three incredible bears. Can the circus be saved or will Count Ramsay succeed in stealing their acts for his own Circus of Nightmares? Well, it’s panto so everyone knows how it will turn out.
The headliner in Birmingham this year is Jason Donovan, making his panto debut as Count Ramsay. Donovan does a good job playing the panto baddie on his first outing, with a lighter and more humorous approach to the character than you often find with this sort of role. He’s given a song to introduce himself and his circus – complete with a gorilla that communicates in grunts and mumbles, called Boris – but after that, such is the star line-up here, he just becomes another character on the stage. Alongside Donovan, the hugely experienced Andrew Ryan is as good as ever in his 31st year playing the panto Dame, and a fairly recent addition to the panto scene and fast becoming a Midlands favourite, Doreen Tipton as the Lazy Lion Tamer. Tipton’s act revolves around being the first person in the world to be diagnosed with Lazy Cow Syndrome and she brings the character she has developed over the years, first on YouTube and more recently on stage, and puts it straight onto the panto stage, which is what people expect and love to see.
There are so many people in the cast that West End star Alexia McIntosh, despite her wonderful voice, feels very underused as Candy Floss. Samantha Dorrance is an engaging Goldilocks, and there’s good work too from the Three Brummie Bears, Ewan Goddard (Daddy Bear), Georgia Anderson (Mummy Bear) and Jessica Daugirda as a dancing Baby Bear.
Whichever headliners or stars you sign up for the Hippodrome panto, there is one man who has become the real star and that is the genius that is Matt Slack. This is his eighth consecutive Birmingham panto and this year his character is Ringo the Ringmaster – not that that’s important, because Matt Slack is Matt Slack, and the Hippodrome audiences adore him. He has an ability to make everything seem so easy, so natural and that undoubtedly conceals a huge amount of hard work that goes into it. His comedy is superb – he co-wrote the script for Goldilocks too – and his interaction with both other cast members and the audience is excellent. It’s topical, occasionally political, and often has an air of spontaneity which goes down extremely well. He has a great singing voice too – in fact, he probably gets more to sing than either Donovan or McIntosh, the two musical theatre stars on the stage. Slack and the Hippodrome panto have become so intertwined it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
As Slack points out, this is less traditional panto and more variety show and being set in a circus allows the inclusion of speciality circus acts. Phil Hitchcock gives us some traditional magic routines alongside juggler Pierre Marchand and aerialists The Gemini Sisters with spectacular motorcycle tricks from Peter Pavlov and his Globe of Speed.
Yes, panto is back, and it’s panto as much for the adults as it is the children. It’s glitzy, it’s spectacular, it’s funny and it’s hugely entertaining.
Runs until 30 January 2022