Alan McHugh, with additional material by The Krankies
Opera House, Manchester
Qdos has been brought in to replace First Family as the producer of the Opera House panto this year, and what a difference it has made, improving vastly on last year's Aladdin in every department and bringing the biggest Manchester panto out of the 1970s at last.
John Barrowman and The Krankies have been working together for several years, initially in Glasgow and last year in Birmingham, and it shows through the great rapport in this unlikely pairing between the all-American (although originally Scottish) good looking guy and the old-fashioned British variety act. Somehow it works, which is just as well as the threesome are very much the stars throughout the show, with everyone else pushed into supporting roles.
If you sit with a checklist of panto elements then you will find quite a few missing or mixed together. There is no dame, no slosh scene, no "behind you" or "oh not it isn't" and Barrowman combines the Principal Boy and Comic roles (with maybe even a touch of the Dame in there as well), even taking the Comic's call and response with the audience each time he comes on stage—when he remembers.
Alderman Fitzwarren is now Councillor Krankie with his son Jimmy—daughter Alice has dropped her surname to save confusion—who form the comic duo. The rest of the cast appear rarely—as do many elements of the story that would help it to make sense—but effectively with Phil Corbitt as a very booable King Rat, Lauren Hampton as Principle Girl Alice, Jacqueline Hughes as The Spirit of Bow Bells, Ryan Kayode as a Manc-speaking Tommy the Tabby Cat and Kage Douglas as the commanding Sultan Vinegar.
There's a 'haunted bedroom' scene, but it's more about the comedy of bed-hopping between the lead trio than about the ghosts, an ocean-bottom rewrite of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that is a real riot and an amazing underwater 3D scene, plus a sleigh that flies out into the audience for a spectacular act I finale. And, if it's the sort of thing that appeals to you, you can see John Barrowman in some very tight shorts singing "YMCA".
Barrowman is famous for his roles in Doctor Who and Torchwood but his long experience in West End musicals shows with his great onstage charisma and superb singing voice. However he also has brilliant rapport with the audience, responding spontaneously to every shout and comment from the auditorium.
There are many layers to the roles The Krankies are playing, from the characters in the thinned-out story, to the father and son characters they have been playing in variety since they started in the Manchester pub and club circuit in the 1960s, to playing on the audience's knowledge that they are really man and wife and have just turned 70. Similarly, Barrowman plays on the contradiction between his character's romantic attachment to Alice and the actor's own well-known homosexuality.
The story is certainly lacking—there is no real narrative thread between most scenes, no clues as to how Dick got to London or where the cat came from—and some of the humour, although suggestive rather than explicit, is probably reaching the limits of acceptability for a family show. The songsheet number is long-winded and suggestive and the audience isn't given much encouragement to join in so their contribution fades. After this, there is no final number or even a final verse to round it off, which is disappointing.
However overall it is great fun, the 5-piece band produces a great and surprisingly full sound, the costumes and sets are bright and colourful and look great, special effects range from the latest technology to old-fashioned traps and pyrotechnics and even the oldest of jokes are delivered with skill and with responsiveness to the audience's reaction. It's sometimes hard to see the join between the improvised dialogue and that which is meant to sound improvised but is carefully scripted and rehearsed.
So while it certainly isn't perfect, it is very entertaining for kids and adults and is a huge step towards putting Manchester back on the panto map after a few years in the doldrums.