Panto is back at the Palladium. Sort of. This, the second instalment of Pantoland (though last year's only ran for six performances before being forced to close), is in fact a variety show in a mask. As the imperious Julian Clary declares, "If you want plot stay at home and watch Casualty."
Clary is joined by the core Palladium troupe – Gary Wilmot, Nigel Havers, Paul Zerdin and Sophie Isaacs – alongside several new faces. Top billing goes to Donny Osmond, who happened to be celebrating his 64th birthday on press night. Although credited as "The Wizard" this only really stretches to the costume; what he's really there to do is croon, and croon he does, from odes to the importance of laughter and clowns to more familiar Osmonds classics and "Any Dream Will Do".
The rest of the line-up offer an impressive range of turns, including Zerdin's ventriloquism using masks over audience members' faces, Australian duo Spark Fire Dance, who hula with flaming hoops, and Wilmot's jaw-dropping tube song, which sees him list every station including the new Queen Elizabeth line. There's also a dance troupe in the form of The Tiller Girls, who look like they've can-can'd straight out of Ziegfeld.
But the real star is Clary, who is utterly peerless as the show's sort-of dame (though this role officially goes to Wilmot). He just has to say the words "winter surge" or "triple jabbed" and we're helpless. When Osmond asks him if he's ever been in Joseph, a mere pause is enough to make the house erupt. He makes it all seems effortless but of course the timing is as precise as a Swiss watch.
Jac Yarrow and Isaacs ostensibly act as the panto prince and princess but really they're just further fuel for Clary ("I think he might be a super spreader," he says of Yarrow), while providing a frisson of musical interest. Nigel Havers gets the most timely joke of the evening as he declares "I haven't had this much fun since Boris's Christmas party". He pops up in a variety of outlandish costumes, at one point appearing as a turkey and saying "gobble gobble" (to which Clary inevitably responds "that might be the best offer I get this evening").
There's an irony in the fact that Michael Harrison's production sets out to celebrate the history of panto at the Palladium, with the stage framed by posters from productions gone by, but doesn't actually constitute a pantomime. Having said that, when the cast are as high calibre as this, the lack of a recognisable story seems a minor quibble. I gobbled it up.