Panto Review: Barrels of laughs at the Alban Arena with Bob Golding, Rita Simons and Andy Day
- Credit: Pamela Raith
Alongside a steaming glass of mulled wine in The Boot, a turkey dinner at the Fighting Cocks and carols on the hour in the Abbey, Christmas in St Albans really isn’t complete without a visit to the Arena’s annual panto.
For the past nine years the man at the heart of the celebrated festive show has been our very own Bob Golding, and this year he takes the director's reins as well as donning a series of outrageous frocks as Nurse Nellie, with more costume changes than your average superhero movie.
Fortunately Sunday's show once again proved a riotous fusion of slapstick, special effects and showbiz, with only the odd hiccup getting in the way of what otherwise would have been a faultless performance from all concerned.
Difficulties with leading lady Jemma Carlisle's mic for the opening song, and CBeebies star Andy Day's memory lapse in the celebrated punning routine were glossed over with sufficient good humour to ensure they did not detract from the proceedings, and arguably added to the overall entertainment factor.
For the children, highlights were unquestionably the chase through the audience by cast members armed with water pistols, and the hilarious water-laden bathroom routine performed by Bob and long-term partner Ian Kirkby, while the adults were kept laughing by increasingly complicated pop culture gags and the usual digs at Luton, Dunstable, Watford and the Stevenage panto, all well-established traditions from previous shows.
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The simplicity of the Sleeping Beauty story meant there was perhaps a fair degree of padding to fill out the narrative, and the action took some time to get going following a great deal of exposition from the good Fairy Moonbeam. This left some younger members of the audience shuffling impatiently in their seats instead of being immediately immersed in the proceedings, whereas a big showstopping opener might have been a better choice creatively.
With the prince's battle through the thorny undergrowth surrounding the palace of Hamalot dealt with surprisingly quickly considering the build-up, the arrangement of Princess Aurora's bed chamber also meant the all-important awakening kiss was obscured from the audience, something which took away much of its impact in what should have been a key moment.
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But these are minor criticisms which are sure to be ironed out over the course of the run, and certainly don't detract from what is unquestionably a spectacular show.
As the leading lady is required to spend most of the second half in a 100-year coma, Jemma swiftly made up for her absence by returning in style for a triumphant battle against the spectacular animatronic dragon, giving a welcome feminist twist to proceedings. She rarely receives recognition for her good girl roles each year, however her consummate professionalism, personal charm and fantastic voice really do deserve credit for the overall success of every Arena panto she appears in.
Big name draw Andy Day, best known for fronting assorted Adventures shows on CBeebies, was perfectly servicable as Jangles the jester, putting his playful screen persona to good use even when he did stumble over the odd line, but did we really need an excuse for him to flog his new single? Arguably not.
This year's stand-out performances definitely came from ex-EastEnder Rita Simons as the evil fairy Carabosse and West End star Lisa Davina Phillip as her sparkly counterpart.
Rita's turn as the show's proverbial baddie was suitably malevolent, but also packed with punch and panache, stealing her scenes with some smooth ad-libs and a turn which owed much to Michelle Gomez's psychopathic Missy on TV's Doctor Who.
Meanwhile Lisa brought a warmth and joy to her performance which was both honest and engaging, and she would be a welcome return to the Arena in future years.
Credit also must go to the marvellous live band, whose musical flair adds so much to the overall experience.
If anything, Evolution Productions' St Albans pantomimes have almost become victims of their own staggering success, with expectations raised higher each year, and as usual, everything you wanted from a pantomime was there in spades, so while this might not have been the best show of recent years, it still knocks spots off any other panto you're likely to see this Christmas.