Teatime on a chilly Saturday in December and the Alban Arena was packed with school groups, scouts, beavers and slightly harassed parents awaiting this year's production of Snow White.
Part-way through the first act, when a slightly restrained audience isn't fulfilling the expected 'he's behind you!' role to Bob Golding's character – Herman the Henchman's satisfaction, he ad-libs the immortal line, “Ladies and Gents, it's not Chekhov, it's panto!” If you're over twelve then this is the mindset you have to adopt when panto season comes round.
Thankfully, for this pantophobe, what started out as an event to please my five-year-old turned into a very enjoyable evening's family entertainment. This, in large part, due to a high-quality cast who genuinely look like they are enjoying themselves and never let the audience's interest wane.
Veteran performer Toyah Willcox revels in being the classic baddie as Wicked Queen Ivannah, expertly delivering her own take on Rolling Stones' tracks 'Sympathy for the Devil' and 'Paint it Black'. Phil Daniels also makes an un-credited appearance as the Queen's Magic Mirror. The dwarfs, particularly young newcomer Paddy Holden (Loopy), lived up to expectations and Rachel Lane's choreography was excellent. But for me it was the comic duo who stole the show.
The comic engine at the core of every panto is usually the cross-dressing dame. Not so for this production. Phil Gallagher's (CBeebies' Mr Maker) Muddles and St Albans' very own Bob Golding (Herman the Henchman) provide a hilarious double act to propel the narrative along, expertly ad-libbing their way through even unforeseen moments. Golding exudes Morcambe-esque comic genius (even if some of his jokes are from that era) and an equally confident Phil Gallagher provides the perfect side-kick.
There is a fine balance of music, dancing, jokes, drama, and old-fashioned panto fun. David McGranaghan and Jemma Carlisle, both with excellent singing voices, make a convincing Prince Charming and Snow White. McGranaghan, standing in at short notice for Brody Hutzler and fresh from the Royal Shakespeare Company, overcomes a rather challenging costume to deliver a convincing performance. (It appears that most of the wardrobe budget went on Toyah's impressive creations).
The Alban Arena switched allegiance from panto producers Qdos Entertainment a couple of years ago to current provider Evolution Productions and this decision has paid off with a quality production that will get even the most reluctant of dads out of their chair. A festive, fun-packed evening's entertainment. Top marks!
Verdict: Ace of Herts (5 out of 5)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is at the Alban Arena, St Albans from Friday 9 Dec 2011 - Sunday 1 Jan 2012. Buy tickets.
Special thanks to Phil Gallagher who was very generous with his time in meeting and chatting with young (and old) 'Mr Maker' and 'Liker Biker' fans after the performance.
Photos: Top: Snow White (Jemma Carlisle), Muddles (Phil Gallagher) & Herman The Henchman (Bob Golding). Middle: Queen Ivannah (Toyah Willcox). Bottom: Loopy (Paddy Holden), Snow White (Jemma Carlisle).
An Emily Wood and Paul Hendy production for Evolution Pantomimes. Directed by Pip Minnithorpe with music by Michael Roulston.