Mark Shenton in the West End
15 December 2023
Peter Pan, of course, is famously the boy who refuses to grow up; but in the latest incarnation of the annual London Palladium pantomime, he has long ago shed his innocence. How could he possibly maintain it with Julian Clary’s perennially predatory Seaman Smee (pun deliberately intended!) on the prowl?
Frances Mayli McCann and Rob Madge.
Photo credit: Paul Coltas.
Resistance is naturally futile: Louis Gaunt’s buff and athletic Peter Pan simply allows himself to be drenched in innuendo and irresistible put-downs. But he’s far from the only butt – in every sense – of Clary’s endless stream of filthy commentary: this is, without doubt, the gayest mainstream entertainment of the year. It’s like the backroom entertainment of a London drag pub suddenly given theatreland’s most prestigious variety stage.
But then risqué gay entertainers have long provided a backbone to panto, from John Inman to the late Paul O’Grady (whom Clary provides a moving tribute to here that provides the event with real humanity). This year there’s added gay joy by a significantly expanded role for Rob Madge, who played a slightly dejected panto cow last year but this year kicks off proceedings as a delightfully othered – and other-worldly – Tinkerbell.
All of this gives the Palladium panto extra punch and zing, and confirms it as the best Christmas show in town: as joyous and uninhibited as it is spectacular and heartfelt, a huge explosion of no-expense spared energy and exhilaration.
Alfie Harrison, Frances Mayli McCann and Harry Ames.
Photo credit: Paul Coltas.
Producer/director Michael Harrison has long created his own regular Palladium panto repertory company, with featured spots every year for a second tongue-twisting dame from Gary Wilmot, a comic stooge from Nigel Havers, and the warm-hearted ventriloquist Paul Zerdin (who is absolutely priceless with the kids he brings to join him on the stage).
This year that sense of family is expanded with a young member of the producer’s own: Alfie Harrison plays Darling child Michael at some performances, opposite Frances Mayli McCann’s Wendy and Harry Ames’s John.
But if J.M. Barrie’s plot is all but abandoned here – causing Rob Madge’s Tinkerbell to sing a lament, “Whatever happened to the plot?” (to a tune borrowed from Spamalot) – there’s always Jennifer Saunders, gratuitously trying to make it all make sense as a re-gendered Captain Hook and a guest appearance as Edina from Absolutely Fabulous. Towards the end of the second act, all gives way to a stunning acrobatic display from the Timbuktu Tumblers, on loan from Zippo’s Circus, who manage to set Peter Pan’s groin on fire.
It’s that kind of show. The eye-popping costumes – Clary’s have their own designer Hugh Durrant credited, while others are the work of Mike Coleman and Teresa Nalton – are a fashion parade of their own, while Mark Walters houses it all in a spectacular set, ravishingly lit by Ben Cracknell, that is one of the most garish yet gorgeous of the year.
And the entire thing provides one of the most enjoyable nights out of the year, too. I love it unashamedly.