Review - Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium
The annual Royal Variety Performance has just seen its 91st show presented, 43 of them at the London Palladium, so it is by far its most established home. And the night after this year's show - filmed in the presence of Prince William - was broadcast on TV, another equally star-studded and outrageously impressive variety show took to the same stage for the fourth consecutive year: the now annual pantomime, which this year is (very loosely) based on the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
But there's barely a plot, merely a patchwork framework to hang a lavish, eye-popping series of turns and speciality acts upon. In fact, the show pays explicit tribute to a former tenant of the London Palladium, which was the original West End home for the transfer of the Broadway musical Barnum in 1981 that made a musical theatre star of Michael Crawford. It's staged like a giant circus, complete with a series of variously amazing speciality acts that include an extraordinary magician Phil Hitchcock, a troupe of four motorcyclist daredevils called Peter Pavlov and the Globe of Speed who engage in a race around a small metal cage, and a pair of roller skaters called the Skating Medini.
And just as Crawford famously walked a tight-rope across the stage in Barnum, so Matt Baker - the likeable TV presenter of shows like Blue Peter, Countryfile and The One Show - now achieves the same feat, as well as juggling and back-flips. He's a panto natural who could be the next Brian Conley.
He is new to the company this year that is otherwise headlined by a now established repertoire company that sees Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers each returning for their fourth consecutive years, Gary Wilmot for his third, and Paul O'Grady for his second.
They've now honed a unique way of working that relies on a fantastic rapport between them, countless running gags, and a bravura sense of confidence and subversive humour that will appeal to the adults on a different level entirely to the kids in the audience. The show itself does not so much walk a tightrope between different genres as send them hurtling into each other outrageously. From tap-dancing bears (step forward musical theatre ingenue Lauren Stroud) to Julian Clary making an entirely gratuitous entrance on a giant life-size elephant whose trunk spouts water over the front stalls, it is an evening of complete excess and utter success.
As devised, directed and produced again by theatre's reigning king of panto Michael Harrison, managing director and now co-owner of Britain's biggest panto producers Qdos (this year responsible for 34 shows around the country, from Aberdeen to Wolverhampton), this may be the most irresistibly entertaining and spectacular panto yet staged by him.
It has (almost) everything - and thanks to Gary Wilmot, it even tries to shoehorn in (almost) every musical theatre song ever written (or at least dozens of them), in a giant breathless medley that Wilmot himself devised, with orchestrations by the show's brilliant musical director Greg Arrowsmith. There really is something for everyone in it, too, with Paul Zerdin providing endless delight with his hilarious ventriloquism and Nigel Havers deliciously sending himself up on every appearance as Daddy Bear.
But presiding over it all, with deadly sharp comic timing and a parade of ever-more outrageous costumes by Hugh Darrant, is Julian Clary, who puts the ring into ringmaster, cueing a reliably filthy stream of anal-themed jokes. He's now a one-man pantomime legend, who both sends up the form yet is also entirely true to it, too.
Paul O'Grady can't quite compete in the comic stakes this year, and feels a little subdued. But there's nothing diminished about the rest of the show, from Ben Cracknell's retina-burning lighting to Ian Westbrook's palatial panto designs.
There isn't a Christmas treat quite like it; I had one of the best theatre nights of the year here.
Goldilocks and the Three Bears tickets are available now.