ShentonSTAGE Daily for MONDAY DECEMBER 19

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Welcome to today’s edition of ShentonSTAGE Daily.

We’ve already had the last of this year’s major openings, with the one scheduled for this coming week — A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE at the Almeida —  now moved to January 12 (though it has begun previews already) after a late cast change that has seen Patsy Ferran replace Lydia Wilson as Blanche DuBois); also postponed to the New Year is WATCH ON THE RHINE after its scheduled December 15 opening was cancelled by cast illness.

No one is actually naming raft of the illnesses sweeping through shows all over town that included the final performances of TAMMY FAYE, also at the Almeida, being cancelled; I was due to see the final matinee, and when it was cancelled I revisited COME FROM AWAY again, where 5 of the 12 -strong company were understudies, as I wrote about here. Remembering how former SOLT/UK Theatre CEO Julian Bird had described the lifting of Covid restrictions at theatres as “a lifeline for the industry”, I’m wondering how that is working out for theatres.

Still, compared to last Christmas, things ARE better, at least for some shows. According to a  News Review feature in yesterday’s SUNDAY TIMES, there are 245 pantos on this year — including 24 from producers Crossroads (formerly Qdos), 18 from Imagine Theatre, 11 from UK Productions and 10 from Evolution. Another panto, MOTHER GOOSE (produced by ATG Productions), gets a separate feature in the SUNDAY TIMES Culture supplement, written by its star Ian McKellen (which I reported on here, after seeing its third performance in Brighton a few weeks ago).

McKellen’s panto debut at the Old Vic in 2004, as Widow Twankey in ALADDIN, ushered in a new age of respectability and theatrical kudos for pantos that led indirectly to their becoming an annual fixture at the London Palladium again, where Julian Clary first presided over what The Guardian’s Michael Billington memorably dubbed a “tsumani of smut” in 2016; happily, he was undeterred and has continued to do so ever since, though 2020’s effort was cancelled after a few performances thanks to a Covid lockdown, and in 2021 saw him in  what was effectively a greatest-hits compilation from previous shows.

This year’s edition is JACK AND THE BEANSTALK, featuring a beanstalk that rises from the middle of the stalls to the very roof of the theatre just before the interval, which Jack then proceeds to climb up (pictured from the upper circle by a friend who saw it from there the night before I went).

It’s the most spectacular moment yet in a panto also featuring the standard repertory company of regular co-stars, the invaluable Gary Wilmot, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers, each of whom have their own now established break-out moments (like a patter song from Wilmott, ventriloquist interactions for Zerdin with audience members seated the front, plus some kids who are brought onto the stage, and the running jokes at the expense of Havers’ age and ever-thwarted ambitions to be a leading player.

There’s also the regulation juvenile lead musical theatre performers (this year the dashing Louis Gaunt and wonderful Natasha McQueen), plus guest stars Dawn French (who drily asks her agent if she can get out of this show and join the McKellen one instead!), Alexandra Burke and Rob Madge as a panto cow.

The show is now a well-oiled machine (one of the few double entendres Clary doesn’t employ, as he totally owns the stage in a succession of outrageous, suggestive costumes, like the one pictured below).  With tickets reaching £185 each, this is hardly panto for everyone; but the theatre was packed last Friday, so it’s clearly working from a commercial point of view.

I’m headed to Wimbledon tomorrow for another Crossroads panto — SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, with a cast that includes Ruthie Henshall, Lee Mead, Brenda Edwards and Matthew Kelly. But that’s probably my lot, panto-wise.

But if you can’t avoid panto, you also can’t avoid stage adaptations of A CHRISTMAS CAROL either this year. Also in the Sunday TImes culture section, Stephen Armstrong  catalogued some of them: “In London alone there are 11 stage productions of A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens’s greatest hit, including one by Dolly Parton. Outside the capital there are at least ten other Scrooges treading the boards, from Edinburgh to Southend, Bolton to Reading. Plus a further five touring productions.”

I’m tempted by the Dolly Parton one (Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, to January 8); I’d also like to catch GHOSTED — Another F***ing Christmas Carol, an adaptation by Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper, who created the annual gay panto at the Above the Stag but with that venue’s closure are staging this at the Other Palace’s Studio instead. I also missed the Simon Russell Beale/Nick Hytner version at the Bridge last year, which is back this year to December 31.

FUTURE SHOWS IN LONDON AND BEYOND

My regularly updated feature on shows in London, selected regional theatres and on Broadway is here: http://shentonstage.com/theatre-openings-from-w-c-december-19/

This will be updated as and when any announcements are made in the coming weeks, but the next official version will be published on January 9.

See you here on Friday…

If you can’t wait that long, I may also be found on Twitter (for the moment) here: https://twitter.com/ShentonStage/ (though not as regularly on weekends)

This newsletter then takes a Christmas break, though I will be publishing twice before resuming normal service on January 9.

  • Next week I will publish a feature special on Al Hirschfeld, the legendary New York theatrical caricature artist whose work accompanied New York Times reviews from 1962 to his death, aged 99, in 2003. His work is currently being exhibited at the new Museum of Broadway in New York and has been collected in a new book, THE AMERICAN THEATRE 1962 to 2002, edited by his long-time archivist David Leopold (creative director of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation), whom I met in New York last week.
  • I will also publish a New Year edition that looks back on the theatre year, on and offstage, in 2022.

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