Real elephants, Frankie Howerd, Cilla Black and Danny La Rue: in its long history of pantomime-making, the London Palladium has had some absolute treats grace its stage. This year sees the return of the family Christmas staple to the iconic, and frankly huge, space for the first time in almost 30 years. There's therefore a lot of expectation riding on this particular Cinders.
Cinderella is no down-at-heel, patched-up-dress affair. Producers Qdos Entertainment, responsible for many pantos up and down the land, have clearly thrown bucket-loads of cash at the show. It has everything you'd want and expect from a panto but ramped up to the absolute max. The flying starts from right at the beginning, the glitter is on everything and the jokes flow and flow and flow.
The choice of pantomime is a safe one: Cinderella is one of the most-loved and most classic pantos of all. And director Michael Harrison works tightly within all the strict panto parameters (expect magic costume changes, audience interaction, ad-libbing and making fun of children). There's no messing about with the form and no surprises, but Harrison makes sure what they do, they do well.
This Cinders plays it for the adults. Who knows why the Palladium stopped all panto in 1987 after a Babes in the Wood, but I'd wager part of what they were missing was the glorious combination of Julian Clary's exceptionally dirty innuendos and Paul O'Grady's withering stare. Much of their jokes will clearly fly right over the head of any young ones in the audience. Clary, playing Dandini, is an absolute riot from start to finish, dropping double entendres at a startling rate of knots. He is absolutely filthy. O'Grady has a barrel-load of magnificent evil put-downs, and he hates on the audience with startling ease: his evil Baroness feels genuinely vicious.
Though the script is surprisingly lacking in local and political references (a couple of Trump jokes barely surface), Cinderella relies on its music hall-style comedy acts. This comes mainly in the form of ventriloquist Paul Zerdin, who plays Buttons very straight, but very funny. His act with puppet Sam harks back to the days of vaudeville and sits particularly nicely on this stage. The show is also punctuated by the appearance of Steve Delaney's comedy character Count Arthur Strong, whose doddery confusion causes some delightful mix ups, and Nigel Havers who merrily chuckles along as the piss is ripped out of him. "Can I be in this scene?" he asks again and again.
Amanda Holden holds herself very well in the always stilted character of the Fairy Godmother and the two leads - Lee Mead and Natasha Barnes - are a delight. Mead is brilliantly up for a laugh and is quite happily mocked by Clary's arch asides. Barnes' voice is a beautiful beacon and during a slapstick number with Mead and Zerdin she shows she can quite easily pull-off making people laugh too.
The songs are a little disappointing, with not enough pop numbers - most are written for the show by Gary Hind. There are also a few too many; O'Grady probably doesn't need his final showdown number to prove his conversion from nasty to nice. The whole piece could do with a slight cut, coming in as it does at around three hours.
Hugh Durrant's costumes for Clary, O'Grady and Holden are a cherry on top. They are ridiculously garish and drowned in sparkles - at one point Clary comes out dressed as a huge rooster. They are outrageous and hilarious and an eye-watering addition to a show that bodes well for the future life of panto in the West End.
Cinderella runs at the London Palladium until 15 January 2017.