This new wave of Palladium pantos, of which Goldilocks is the fourth, has progressively with each year become less traditional pantomime and more high-end variety show. If last year's Snow White fell a little uncomfortably between two stools, 2019's offering is a rip-roaring, dazzlingly gaudy return to form, albeit with the emphasis firmly on variety rather than panto, although surely that's forgivable at what is arguably the most famous variety theatre in the world.
Nobody goes to a pantomime for the plot but this eye-popping spectacle dispenses with it almost entirely. Panto purists may also be disappointed at the scarcity of audience participation (not a single raucous rendition of "Oh yes I am!/ Oh no you're not!", no sequence featuring kids pulled onto the stage from the front stalls) and lack of pop songs (although Julian Clary delivers a hilariously bizarre version of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight").
Instead, we get a circus theme – appropriate enough for the theatre which once housed the UK premiere of Barnum – glitter cannons, giant puppets, a kings ransom in sequins and marabou feathers, and a couple of speciality acts that take the breath away. The most astonishing of these, Peter Pavlov and the Globe of Speed, sees a quartet of stunt bikers spinning and dipping inside a giant onstage globe to a thunderous soundtrack; as exhilarating as it is alarming, this extraordinary sequence provoked a mid-show standing ovation. If Vegas ever mounted a pantomime, this is probably what it would look like.
Clary is a regular fixture for the festive season at this venue and, after a slightly more subdued turn last year, he is back here on devastatingly witty, laconic camp form as The Ringmaster. Each of his costumes (designed by Hugh Durrant) probably costs the same as the entire budget for a small scale panto, but it's money well spent. Gary Wilmot (as a joyous Dame Betty Barnum), Nigel Havers and brilliant ventriloquist Paul Zerdin are all back and, if they're all basically offering variations on their performances from previous years, the indulgent Palladium crowd greets them like old friends.
Paul O'Grady has fun as evil Baron Von Savage, working with an amusingly weird accent that's a hybrid of Scouse and Mittel European, and Lauren Stroud taps up a storm as Baby Bear, like an ursine auditionee for 42nd Street.
The big surprise here though is The One Show's Matt Baker in his panto debut. Charming, athletic and a little bit camp, he is a juggling, tightrope-walking treat as Joey the Clown, all round good guy and potential love interest for Sophie Isaacs' likeable Goldilocks.
Michael Harrison's glitzy, oil-smooth production looks rainbow-gorgeous. If one single technical element stands out, it's Ben Cracknell's retina-burning, primary coloured lighting, which extends right out into The Palladium's auditorium. At one point on press night, O'Grady turned to Clary and said "That's where all the budget has gone: your wardrobe… and light bulbs". He may not have been joking.
Is the show perfect? Well, no. After a tumultuously good first half, the second act gets a bit bogged down in an extended scene at Von Savage's Circus of Horrors that is neither as funny nor as scary as it should be. Some parents will doubtless be praying that their offspring don't ask what some of Clary and O'Grady's smuttier quips actually mean, and the sound quality is a little muddy at times.
These are comparatively minor quibbles however in a production that shows you where every last penny of your ticket money has gone. Even a hardened West End press night audience was staggering up The Palladium aisles at the end with huge grins plastered all over their faces. Don't go expecting a traditional pantomime, and you'll have a wonderful time.