What would Christmas be without a good pantomime, and what would Christmas in Leeds be without the annual Rock’n’Roll Panto at the City Varieties? Answer – Easter! Oh no it wouldn’t!
This year’s offering is Beauty And The Beast, a show which more than lives up to the standard previously set. Pantomime is a really difficult format to pull off successfully but the team at Leeds City Varieties have got it nailed.
The setting helps, as it is a venue designed to be conducive to audience participation. When it opened in 1865 the music hall acts of the day would expect to be heckled and have the punters sing along with their, somewhat ribald, songs. The numbers may now be pop songs rather than bawdy ballads and the interplay a little less obscene but the principle is still the same and so this small, intimate space is perfect for the genre.
You obviously still need performers who are up to the job and here we have them in spades. There are ten cast members credited in the programme and they provide the acting, singing, dancing, comedy and music. They also double as ancillary players in certain scenes.
Hannah Price, who plays Vanity also provides music on Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Trumpet, Electric Guitar and Keys. Not all at the same time, I must add. Hannah Baker, who pays her sister Luxury, is also responsible for Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, Bass and Keys. They are both singers as well and act their cashmere socks off giving over the top portrayals of Sir Peacock Beauregarde’s spoilt daughters. Kenny Davies who is their minted father, also sings and plays Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar and Drums, so is no slouch himself. He even manages to carry off the wearing of an outrageously loud striped suit and a ginger syrup the colour of which would make even Prince Harry jealous.
The story, as with all pantomimes, is basically irrelevant but needs to have a love interest which has to overcome all kinds of obstacles before eventually ending happily. In this case it was Sir Peacock’s youngest daughter, Beauty, the nice one played by Grace Lancaster, who would rather just have a single rose as a present than most of the contents of Harvey Nicols like her sisters. Oh, she also needed a Baritone Saxophone and an Alto version. She befriends Beast, Connor Mellor, a handsome, if somewhat arrogant, prince who had had a curse put on him by a witch to make him look ugly after he spurned her advances. The curse would only be lifted when a woman agreed to marry him. You can see where this is going can’t you. It could have been his playing of Acoustic Guitar, Electric Guitar, Bass and Keys which did it though. He was assisted by his two footmen Primp, Alice Gruden – Acoustic Guitar and Keys, and Preen, Timothy Roberts – Drums and Electric Guitar. They had also been transformed by the witch and lived with Beast in a large old house in the middle of nowhere.
There needs to be a Fairy Godmother, here played by Lana Walker (Fairy Fortunate) who also provides Keys, Alto Saxophone and Percussion, to narrate the story and help the lovers along a bit. Another staple is the loser who is in love with the heroine and is obviously not going to get anywhere with her but you know things will work out for him in the end. Here we had Desperate Dan the farmhand played by James William-Pattison, as were Electric Guitar, Acoustic Guitar and Keys.
Last, but by no means least, we have the undoubted star of the show, the Pantomime Dame, Dame Bessie Bigbreaths, who, in the tradition of the role, is not the most subtle or politically correct character in the piece. If pantomime per se is difficult to master, the role of Dame is the foundation on which it either stands or falls. Absolutely no worries here because the wonderful Simon Nock has this role down to perfection, along with playing Tenor Saxophone and Percussion.
Mr Nock’s interaction with the audience is a masterclass in Pantomime Damery. There were obviously a lot of children in the theatre so his outlandish costumes, slapstick and Christmas Cracker jokes elicited a chorus of high pitched laughter, but he is also well able to slide in a few naughtier quips which had the adults in stitches whilst passing far above the heads of the kids. This is the second time I have seen him in Panto and, as in the first, he rounded on a hapless chap in the stalls, introducing him to the rest of the audience and periodically throwing insults and suggestive remarks in his direction for the remainder of the night. This was done with consummate professionalism by gently ribbing the man, whilst stopping short of humiliation, which would have ruined the show for everyone. Dan, for that was the stooge’s name, took it in good part and was in stitches himself for the whole evening.
When I was a kid, there used to be a further element, that of the cast throwing sweets into the audience but health and safety rules seem to have knocked that on the head. What has taken its place, or at least did last night, was the use of water guns which were sprayed onto the audience. I would normally have found this very jolly except that the rainstorm occurred immediately after the interval and I was still finishing my vanilla ice cream, the tub of which was filling with H2O. Still, its all part of the fun!!!
The show has to end with the audience getting up out of their seats and getting down to the groovy tunes, which I, along with every other member of those assembled, did very enthusiastically. I do love a good boogie.
It would be wrong of me not to mention the ‘creatives’ whose efforts made this show the success it was, what with the sparkles, explosions lighting effects as well as the above mentioned thespian management, so here goes: Peter Rowe was the Writer, Rob Salmon the Director, Dan de Cruz, Musical Director and Sam Spencer-Lane Choreographer. Dawn Allsopp designed the Set and Costumes, Tom Oliver the Lighting with Simon Deacon as Sound Designer. Casting was done by Debbie O’Brien.
I would also like to mention the wonderful staff of Leeds City Varieties who were their usual helpful, friendly selves, and seemed to be enjoying the show as much as the rest of us.
City Varieties have done it again and lifted the spirits of a city when it was needed the most. After a dark period causing last years’ theatrical events to be cancelled, and the reimposition of some Covid restrictions a couple of days before, we poured out into the narrow cobbled street in which the venue is situated, feeling far better than we had a couple of hours previously. Even the outside of City Varieties looks like Christmas. To round the night off it began to snow during my bus journey home. If that doesn’t deserve a Ho! Ho! Ho! then nothing does.
Beauty And The Beast – The Rock’n’Roll Pantomime runs until Sunday 9th January, 2022. Please go to https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/beauty-and-the-beast-the-rock-n-roll-panto/ for more information and to book your tickets.
Featured image provided by Leeds Heritage Theatres. Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Ant Robling