Writers: Michael Harrison and Brian Conley
Director: Michael Harrison
Reviewer: James Garrington
It’s panto time, and this year Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates sails into the Birmingham Hippodrome. This has been billed as Britain’s biggest pantomime, and it’s hard to argue with that claim; producers Qdos have never been a company to skimp on their productions, and this is no exception. With breathtaking scenery, spectacular effects and lavish costumes, Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates is a feast of delights from start to finish.
It has become customary to include some star names in many pantomimes, and that is the case here – we have Brian Conley as Robinson Crusoe in his sixth outing in a Hippodrome panto, following his appearance as Buttons in last year’s Cinderella. Conley is a consummate professional, and simply has a natural talent for this sort of rôle. I doubt if there is a funnier man in panto anywhere in the country. His connection with the audience is sublime, and the way he works with the children brought from the audience onto the stage is excellent, setting them at their ease so even the (inevitable) shy one who won’t utter a word at first ends up by saying thank you when given the traditional goody-bag. He has, of course, also got an excellent singing voice, and one that we heard far too little of in this production – but that does not detract from the superb quality and sheer energy of his performance.
He is ably supported by Lesley Joseph as the Enchantress, in the “Good Fairy” rôle. She also seems totally at ease with her rôle in this production, dealing with mishaps with aplomb and showing that, although her actual singing voice may not be the best, she is more than capable of putting across a number, and stepping in with a flash to lend a helping hand to rescue our hero. Her villain, who of course gets defeated in the end (this is panto after all!) is played by Gavin Woods as Captain Blackheart the Pirate. He is essentially the straight man, but this does not stop him joining in some of the jokes and ad-libs from time to time. The performance rôle is slightly understated, compared to a lot of ‘panto villain’ characters, but this is entirely appropriate for the rôle he is playing.
Crusoe’s girlfriend Polly is well played by local girl Kathryn Rooney, who is also becoming something of a Hippodrome regular. Having done several years in panto she is, as you would expect, also confident and comfortable with the rôle she has – which she needs to be, to deal with Conley’s antics and ad-libs. She also shows that she has a fine singing voice, again used rather little in a show that is based more around the script than the usual panto songs – and what a script it is: topical, relevant, full of local references and above all hysterically funny. From the introductory video, to the lavish wedding scene at the end the script – and the apparent deviations from it – it has the audience crying with laughter. In fact, half of the jokes probably go unheard, as the audience is still laughing from the previous one. Andrew Ryan is the Dame, Mrs Crusoe, with the usual selection of outrageous costumes – the bikini fat suit is something to behold. Highly experienced in panto, he gives us a traditional dame, delivering lines, innuendo and audience interaction with equal ease.
Designer Ian Westbrook has come up with a masterpiece of a set, with beautiful scenery and moving Pirate ships; and the effects, provided by The TwinsFX, are truly spectacular. We may have seen flying cars before, but this is undoubtedly one of the best, hovering over the audience with no apparent means of support thanks to the finely-judged matching of hydraulics and lighting.
Directed by Michael Harrison, this is a panto for everyone involved – on stage or back stage – to be proud of. When we have productions like this in Birmingham, who needs to travel to London for theatre?
With spells to be cast, baddies to be fought and a damsel to rescue, this is traditional pantomime at its best – but taken to a whole new level by the incredible production values. If there is a better panto anywhere in the country this Christmas, I’d like to see it. Beg, steal or borrow to get a ticket – but whatever you do, don’t miss it.
Runs until 27th January 2013
Picture: Simon Hadley