Panto News: June 2017

Simon Sladen

Since January's announcement that Qdos Entertainment had gone into partnership with the Ambassador Theatre Group, all eyes have been on the company to see just how panto season 2017 might play out.

It is now June and we know almost all of Qdos's 35 pantomime headliners. Whilst some key Qdos talent has been shipped to previously First Family Entertainment venues, such as Brian Conley in MK Theatre's Cinderella, and others retained, such as Jonathan Wilkes and Christian Patterson at the Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, some casting has upset the establishment and tenure of regular Comics.

Having been relegated from the Bristol Hippodrome last year due to Torvill and Deane's Cinderella, Andy Ford won't be making a triumphant return home, but rather sail the ocean as Smee in the Theatre Royal, Plymouth's Peter Pan alongside Steve McFadden. Likewise, Des Clarke, who was slowly becoming the Glasgow King's next Gerard Kelly, hasn't been announced at all, being replaced at the venue by Johnny Mac in a production also starring Elaine C Smith.

Firm favourite of Manchester audiences Tam Ryan also lost out to Torvill and Deane's virtually Buttonless Cinderella back in 2015, never to return to the Opera House. Rather than seizing the opportunity this year, he's being sent to Cardiff, whilst Llandudno regular John Evans swaps Wales for Liverpool. Similarly, Chris Jarvis's FFE home of Richmond post UK Productions' Bournemouth has been ditched in favour of High Wycombe with Biggins occupying the top of the bill at the South West London theatre.

Of course, any new producer at a theatre needs to show their pantomime prowess and put on a show to outdo anything their rivals could have ever presented. Part of pulling out all the stops is gifting the new venues some of Qdos's biggest stars. With a focus on British variety and light entertainment, Qdos is custodian of almost all the UK's top Comic talent and so it makes perfect sense to ship them in. And of course this also means the opportunity to establish new Comics at new Qdos venues and in doing so establish new traditions.

Whilst Al Murray won't become Wimbledon's resident Comic after his panto debut in Jack and the Beanstalk this year, a casting surprise has come in the form of Clive Rowe. Not seen upon the Hackney stage for a couple of years now, he'll make his Wimbledon debut as Dame Trot this season. Whether or not he'll return to the Empire for Aladdin after this year's Cinderella, a title he doesn't partake in, we'll have to wait and see. Will the lure of commercial wages keep him in Wimbledon? Or will he miss the family atmosphere and creative input he's afforded at Hackney?

Qdos's monopoly has also meant an end to American castings once championed by FFE. If we've lived through phases of Music Hall, Rock and Pop, Gladiators, Australian Soapstars and Hollywood Legends, are we now in the age of Panto's Got Talent, where winners reign alongside the Best of British? Will we see a return to the top comedians of the day joining the panto boards as in seasons past? Who knows? 2017 sees Qdos's Michael Harrison produce Annie starring Miranda Hart—maybe she'll be next for 2018?

If any venue champions the Best of British, then it has to be the London Palladium where Qdos's Dick Whittington will welcome back Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers after last year's Cinderella. Joining them will be Elaine Paige as Queen Rat, Gary Wilmot as Sarah the Cook, Charlie Stemp as Dick Whittington and Ashley Banjo and Diversity as the Sultan of Morocco and his entourage.

With last year's Birmingham Hippodrome production featuring John Barrowman and the Krankies taking a turn in Manchester, it seems the Palladium's version might just mirror the Hippodrome's 2010 telling of the tale with Clary revisiting his Spirit of the Bells, Havers going from King Rat to Captain Nigel, Zerdin and Sam taking on the mantel of Keith Harris and Orville and Paige replacing Joan Collins.

Many stars flit between companies season upon season, such as Bradley Walsh who this year appears with Martin Kemp in ex-Qdos producer Jon Conway's arena panto Peter Pan at the Birmingham Barclaycard Arena and the SSE Arena, Wembley. Previously Walsh has appeared in many a season for FFE, but where are some of their other key players in 2017? Andy Collins is remaining resident in Aylesbury, where UK Productions will produce the venue's pantomime, also re-engaging the services of La Voix—as seen on Britain's Got Talent.

But it's not just the world of producing that's been shaken up, so have the worlds of some performers who this year appear in roles anew. Dashing Principal Boy Hi-5's Chris Edgerley turns wicked to play Fleshcreep in Horsham, whilst Great British Pantomime Awards winners for Best Sisters 2016 Lav and Lou aka Dean Horner and  Oliver Gray are set to play Wicked Queen and Dame at the Spotlight, Hoddesdon.

After many a season in Sevenoaks, panto Dame Robert Pearce left for Gravesend with Comic partner Ant Payne in 2014 to be replaced by Peter Brad-Leigh. However, 2017 will see the Stag Theatre's first dameless pantomime when drag artist Danny Beard complete with glitter encrusted facial hair will play the Magic Mirror. This will be Those Magic Beans's first Snow White, a title that always performs well, leaving it with very few narratives left to tick off the list.

One narrative increasing in popularity this year is Beauty and the Beast, helped immensely by Disney's live-action remake. Little Wolf Ltd will present its first pantomime at the Derby Arena, Parkwood Theatres get set to produce its first panto at the newly reopened Queen's Theatre, Barnstaple whilst Three Bears Productions returns to the York Opera House for its second year with the beastly tale. 2017 will also see Qdos present the title at the Theatre Royal Nottingham, having last produced it in Aberdeen back in 2014.

A title rarely seen these days, Evolution Productions will present its first Mother Goose at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield to celebrate Damian Williams's decade of Daming at the venue, whilst Sarah A Nixon and Mark Chatterton create a brand new rock 'n' roll panto for Liverpool's Everyman Theatre based on The Little Mermaid. Other interesting titles this season include Charles Court Opera's King Tut and Leicester Square Theatre's Trump: The Alternative Panto.

And so as we look forward to Panto Season 2017, it is also time to remember performers who sadly passed away recently. Panto Dame extraordinaire Roy Barraclough, producer Duggie Chapman, Blue Peter's John Noakes and children's television star Andy Cunningham of Bodger and Badger fame will all be sorely missed. Our thoughts go out to their friends and family.