Goldilocks and the Three Bears at Birmingham Hippodrome review – full of exuberance and laughter

The show must go on… Oh yes, it must!

Jason Donovan in Goldilocks and the Three Bears
Jason Donovan in Goldilocks and the Three Bears
© Birmingham Hippodrome

Birmingham's pantomime is one of the UK's largest but also one of the country's latest to open and the threat of new restrictions over the last few days has meant a nail-biting wait to ensure it could go ahead. But go ahead it has – in a blaze of glory.

Based very loosely on the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, this year's panto takes us into the big top and is studded with circus acts in a production which is more of a variety show than a traditional pantomime. That's not to say it doesn't have all of the panto ingredients but it feels like a hybrid of two shows as it jumps back and forth between slapstick comedy and daredevil feats.

It has taken two years because of the Covid lockdown but Birmingham audiences finally got to see Jason Donovan's panto debut and very good he is too. Playing the evil circus owner Count Ramsay of Erinsborough, he's devious, dastardly and downright nasty. This man not only hates people, he also hates animals – even cute dancing bears. Donovan is a panto natural, effortlessly striking that balance between being a baddy but a baddy with good humour – indeed I would have been tempted to give him more stage time than he currently has.

Back for his eighth year at the Hippodrome, Matt Slack takes on the role of Ringo the Ringmaster and has great stage chemistry with Donovan, rolling out joke after joke about Neighbours and even dressing up and performing as Kylie Minogue. Hugely popular with Birmingham audiences, Slack also peppers the show with impersonations and song.

Andrew Ryan returns as the Dame, this time Dame Betty Barnum the circus owner determined to run a business which is kind and benevolent – and under threat from Count Ramsay. Sashaying across the stage in extravagant costumes, Ryan can play the audience, creating laughs with a wiggle of the hips and a flutter of his larger-than-life eyelashes.

Queen of the Black Country Doreen Tipton's Lazy Lion Tamer is much less of a lion tamer and more of a butt of the jokes – the recurrent gags being that she is workshy and that Slack has no idea what she says in her broad Tipton accent.

There are also plenty of circus acts to spice up the show from Pierre Marchand juggling laser diabolos in the dark, Peter Pavlov's stunt motorcycle riding, aerialists the Gemini Sisters and Phil Hitchcock magically transforming handkerchiefs into doves.

Produced and directed by Michael Harrison and written by Alan McHugh and Matt Slack, Goldilocks is full of local colour with topical allusions including social distancing and parties at Number 10. Set designer Ian Westbrook and special effects team The Twins FX also ensure some magical moments including a huge gorilla and an incredible elephant head which comes out into the audience.

What comes through this panto above all is the sheer joy of performing the show back on stage. From the energetic dancing, the pyrotechnics, the flashing lights and the gorgeously glittering costumes, it is full of exuberance, laughter and fun. Even the cast were emotional – Slack ended the performance with a heartfelt thank you to the audience for coming out to support live theatre and following the rules to allow it to continue.