Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Alan McHugh, additional material by Ben Nickless
Opera House, Manchester
Billed as "the fairest panto in the land", Qdos has brought Strictly bad boy Craig Revel Horwood, as he nears the end of his judging duties for this year, to Manchester as bad girl Queen Lucretia.
The story is part-familiar, part-reinvented, with a hasty and not entirely intelligible back-story sung by the Dwarves taking us to Snow White and the Prince's first meeting, leading to love at first sight, but the vain Queen, whose sinister magic mirror warns her she may not be the fairest after Snow White's 21st birthday party, has her own sights set on marrying the hunky Prince.
She hypnotises Muddles and Nora into taking the girl into the woods and leaving her to die, but they break her spell and leave her safely in the Dwarves' cottage. The Queen sends her dragon out to find her—a very impressive act I finale which has the dragon fly out over the audience—and then she flies out herself—less impressive as the mechanism is less well-hidden—to poison her with an apple. Within minutes, the Prince appears and revives her with true love's kiss, which prompted some sicky noises from the kids (perhaps some adults too) in the audience on press night.
Alan McHugh's script doesn't stray beyond the expected elements of a modern pantomime with any major innovations, but it has a remarkably small principal cast of just five, and most of the focus is on the trio of Revel Horwood's wicked Queen, Ben Nickless—returning to the Opera House after winning at the British Panto Awards for Best Panto Comic for his Buttons in last year's Cinderella—as Muddles and panto veteran Eric Potts as Dame Nora Crumble. Joshua St Clair's Prince Harry is sometimes drafted in if they need a foursome or as the subject of the Queen's desire.
The eight title characters are actually the smallest parts (I'm not apologising for the pun): Zoë George as a strong Snow White and the Magnificent Seven—as the Dwarves are billed—who are played by larger actors on their knees with false legs, like Lord Farquaad in Shrek, with names more like Mr Men than Disney Dwarves and strong 'Manc' nasal accents oversaturated with Manchester street slang, making them sound like seven little Gallaghers (yes, that annoying).
Nickless shows off his versatility as a comic and a mimic—he has a wide range of comic impressions, some singing, some aided by imaginative props—with some well-delivered routines and has a great rapport with the audience. He plays his part well in the tongue-twister messenger routine and the anarchic "Twelve Days of Christmas" routine, now a panto standard, which ends up bringing the set down. He also has some notable solo spots, including a story told through the names of chocolate bars and a tale of a disastrous date with lots of scatological humour (which had the kids screaming with laughter) in which his answers to Nora's questions were all lines from popular songs and a great songsheet number with kids from the audience—and he'd almost met his match with a couple of them on press night.
In contrast, Potts's dame has very little solo material, but he carries out the role as efficiently as he has been doing for decades with an array of brilliantly ridiculous costumes (I assume Mike Coltman, credited for 'speciality costumes', is responsible for these as no other costume or set designer is credited).
Revel Horwood can certainly carry off the elegance of the vain villain—he says in the programme, he does "my own make-up, darling"—and shows off a great singing voice with a good range of numbers, from his entrance to Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" to a show-stopping "My Way" at the end. However, surprisingly, his dialogue is delivered rather mechanically, which loses the timing of a lot of the gags, and his constant movement makes him look far more nervy than he does sinister.
This will no doubt improve as he settles into the run, but I wonder whether this is partly because, as this is such a small cast, he is expected to be far more than just a villain: he also acts as straight man feeding lines to the comic, has dame-like sex-mad suggestiveness to put across and is also needed to make up the numbers in the comedy routines. He is never aloof enough to feel like much of a threat and just seems like the snootier one in a group of mates.
Musical director Barney Ashworth leads a five-piece band in the pit that sounds like a lot more and, courtesy of sound designer Ross Portway, is very loud without ever becoming painful. The numbers are well-known songs with rewritten lyrics, which sometimes work okay but some are a bit clumsy in the way they interact with the melody which can make them difficult to understand (and to sing, no doubt).
The show has some good big numbers choreographed by Ashley Nottingham and lots of great humour, of which Nickless is in almost total control—he is the star who holds it all together, whatever the billing on the poster. They do a lot of pretending that they are laughing as though things have gone wrong—if you doubt that they are pretending, see our review of Jack and the Beanstalk in Darlington by the same writer where the actors go wrong, nearly swear and stop the show laughing in exactly the same places in the same routines—which they do carry off quite convincingly in the main.
It's spectacular, good fun with lots of shouting out for the kids and a bit of suggestiveness and even political asides (the Donald Trump doll / puppet is quite something) for the adults, so perfect for all the family at Christmas.
Reviewer: David Chadderton