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Robinson Crusoe & the Caribbean Pirates (Birmingham)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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To say that Brian Conley lights up a stage is an understatement. He mega-watts it, and brings a few candles for good luck on his return to the Hippodrome from an unlucky experience in the jungle as a celebrity wanting to get out of there.

He thinks he's Buttons (this is his sixth Hippo panto), goes to the front of the stage and falls into the orchestra pit, the first of many classic vaudeville routines he completes with the relaxed brilliance of all the big stars; not to mention the gags - "If you cut my head off, I'll never speak to you again."

Michael Harrison's production has pirates at sea, a shipwreck - Robinson is searching for true love (with Kathryn Rooney's petite Polly) as well as the temple of treasure - and this involves some jungle bunny-hopping led by Earl R Perkins as Friday, a gorilla, a Sea Monster and a chorus of Cossacks.

What's great - and so different from Aladdin with Lily Savage at the O2 Centre, for instance - is that it's all so audience-involving, from the moment Conley as Robinson and Lesley Joseph as the enchantress, his good fairy, make their deals with us and seal them in some expert corpsing.

Nobody minds when the island survivors leave Robbo and Polly to fly over the audience in a sports car update of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a fantastic first-act closer, and there's more magic to come as Conley reprises his Music Man triumph with some wonderful rapport with kids from the audience; this fine panto tradition has received a sudden boost in the wake of the tragic Connecticut shootings. Everyone around me was in shreds.

So, an outstanding panto, with lovely painted designs by Ian Westbrook, a superb dame from Andrew Ryan as Mrs Crusoe, who's stuck out her bottom for England ("How do you solve a problem like my rear?"), and a baddie pirate, Blackheart (Gavin Woods), who knows his place and how to get boos.

There was a great atmosphere around the Hippodrome. Their favourite son, Conley, was back from the jungle, and he paid fulsome tribute to the audience, the back stage staff, and the city itself, in his curtain speech. Then he pulled a funny face and did a fart joke. Wonderful stuff.


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