If there’s one takeaway from the camp, colourful night at the London Palladium it’s what a great sport Nigel Havers is.
Billed (in his return to the venue) as The Understudy, the not unaccomplished star of films such as Chariots of Fire and A Passage to India (and TV’s erstwhile Charmer) is peppered with mickey-takes.
“Management regret to inform you that Nigel Havers is appearing,” we’re told in a voice over. And that’s before the curtain even comes up. The joke (once again) is that he’s desperate to get on and take over Julian Clary’s role, wearing one of the camp star’s many dazzling, staggeringly garish outfits.
But Havers’ good-natured ribbing is emblematic of a night of self-conscious luvviedom, where Clary (in this third year of Palladium panto) and Dawn French (making her panto debut) are our stars, compete with Gary Wilmot (and his superb voice) as a very accomplished Dame, Nora Crumble, whose task is made all the trickier by Clary who on this form would outshine even the Damiest of Dames.
Adding more sprinklings of stardust to the show, which comes from the same team as last year’s Olivier-winning Dick Whittington, is Over the Rainbow winner Danielle Hope as Snow White and ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (and his hilarious puppet Sam) putting in a very capable shift as the Buttons-alike Muddles.
It’s garish, bright, funny and joyous and there are some stunning set pieces – a huge dragon takes to the stage at one point and Strictly dancers Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace treat us to some fabulous Argentinian Tango that would have got straight tens from the Elstree judges. And it also has (thanks, unsurprisingly, to Mr Clary) more camp jokes than you’re every likely to hear in two-and-a-half hours.
“I buff myself up,” he tells us at one point, prompting my ten-year-old asked me what he meant. “My shiny helmet is the talk of Soho.” I remained silent. As I did when he said: “There was eight inches outside my window this morning.”
But while my daughter didn’t (thankfully) get many of these gags she did love the singing and the spectacle, and the many many MANY costume changes Clary undergoes. He comes in as a whole garden of flowers, a painter’s palette and, a Christmas tree laden with baubles and so many other things. But you have to see him to believe the extremity of the spectacle – he really looked extraordinary, like he’d wandered in from an Elton John birthday party, having stolen Elton’s costume every time.
In some ways Clary also steals the show from French who’s our hiss-boo baddie Dragonella, the wicked witch queen. But she’s a good sport throughout, drawing on her Vicar of Dibley credentials to good effect at the close. But with so many stars treading the Palladium’s revered boards, it’s little wonder that the starriness of our cast is constantly alluded to; panto is an already self-conscious medium, but this is a spectacle which firmly draws attention to its theatricality.
“Dawn French?” says Clary early on, “What brings you to the Palladium? A large tax bill?”
What drew me was this cheerful, weird, so British phenomenon. I’ve always had trouble explaining pantomime to non-Brits, and will struggle even more after this. Just as I had struggle explaining Clary’s filthy jokes to a little girl. Maybe the writing team overdid that a bit. But there are some key requirements of decent panto. Is it wonderful? Is it fun? Is it inexpressibly silly? Oh yes, this one is. Long may it continue.
Snow White is at the London Palladium until January 13