Birmingham Hippodrome


IT'S glitzy, spectacular, funny, slick, fast paced, doesn't frighten horses, grannies or toddlers and has  just about everything you could ask for in a traditional panto – a glorious evening's entertainment for all the family..

And they do not come much more traditional than Cinderella, billed quite rightly as The Greatest Pantomime of Them All. It is a fairy tale everyone knows and loves with its downtrodden heroine, ugly sister baddies, Jack-the-lad Buttons, a handsome prince, a fairy godmother and that iconic glass slipper.

Last year's show had more stars than the Milky Way battling for attention but this year it goes back to basics, a panto like those we used to remember, relying on that master of the craft. oh yes he is, Brian Conley, in his fifth Hippodrome panto, to take us by the hand through the familiar story.

He has that wonderful gift possessed by a small handful of performers such as the late Tommy Cooper or Alan Briscoe of Dandy that they only have to walk on stage, without even doing anything, and you are already starting to laugh.

He looks and sounds as if he is having the time of his life and makes you feel you are his best mate and the jokes are for your benefit. His only drawback is that when he is off stage you feel the audience are just waiting for him to reappear.

Brian Conley as Buttons and Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother

He has the sort of personality and stage presence that fills any theatre but he was well supported starting with the posh frocks and sparkle of Lynda Bellingham, wielding the wand and bringing order to proceedings as Fairy Godmother in what is surprisingly her first panto in a long and distinguished career – a career which meant she had to suffer Loose Women, Oxo and Calendar Girl jokes from the wickedly mischievous Conley.

You would never guess she was a panto newcomer, taking to the part like a duck to water – or probably orange sauce at this time of year.

Basil Brush, boom boom and all that, plays Baron Basil, which is really just Basil. The foxy puppet is in his 42nd year in show business and is still the same as ever with jokes that range from the witty to the painfully corny.

Kathyn Rooney as Cinderella cuts down on travel costs for producers Qdos, hailing as she does from Solihull.

She was Alice Fitzwarren in last year's Dick Whittington and makes an equally pretty heroine this time around as well with more opportunity to show off her pleasing voice.

Prince Charming (Matthew Goodgame), Cinderella (Kathryn Roony) and Buttons (Brian Conley) find holding on to a note is a lot easier than holding on to a place on the wall as they launch, literally, into a Bryan Adams hit

Making her life hell are Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins as the Ugly Sisters and what splendid dames they are with fabulously bizarre costumes from chandeliers to fruit that they design and create themselves. So they are not just a . . . well, ugly face then.

Matthew Goodgame makes a handsome and dashing Prince Charming with a fine voice even in a somewhat fraught trio with Cinders and Buttons in a rendition of (Everything I do) I do it for you. The song spent 16 weeks at the top of the charts but none of the three managed 16 seconds on top of a wall in what was more of a freestyle wresting version.

His sidekick is Dan Burton as Dandini who lets rip with an up-temp number at the ball which, like the rest of the show, has some slick choreography from Paul Robinson although I am not too sure about the crinoline tutus for the ladies of the ensemble.

The scenery and sets by Ian Westbrook were sumptuous and used the whole of the huge Hippodrome stage and there were enough pyrotechnics to keep a decent sized bonfire party going. Even that gave us a warm waft of nostalgia as the smoke drifted across the audience with that unmistakable smell we used to get from rolls of caps firing away in the cowboy guns of childhood. Ah, happy days.

The show had its special effect moments with Pegasus, the flying horse taking to the air with Cinders in her coach with no visible means of support thanks to lots of smoke and clever lighting from Ben Cracknell.

And the same trick was used with Conley taking to the skies on a motor bike, All The Fun of the Fair, style.

The costumes too were elegant and rich in a show which gave the impression no expense had been spared but for all that though the star of the show was Charlie, a rather gorgeous Palomino horse who went through his repertoire of tricks from bowing and crossing his legs to doing impressions and even lying down to go to bed as Conley sang a lullaby.

He was closely followed by Tina, a woman from Solihull dragged from the audience to help Conley with a song - and a whole showful of patter from then on as she got more mentions than Cinders and then there were the children! Four youngsters were brought up from the stalls to unwittingly become an act on their own.

Cinders and Buttons could well end up living happily ever after as the Fairy Godmother, swinging on a star, looks on

There was the little girl who burst into tears because she wanted to go to the toilet so Conley sent her off with her dad - and we waited for her return to sing Old Macdonald. She was so shy dad had to sing her part.

Then there was the lad who didn't know what sound cows made so praise the Lord finally for five year old Olivia who insisted in lifting up her dress but at least knew what pigs sounded like and rattled through the rest of the song unaided.

The kids left with the obligitary goody bag with Olivia having an extra present of a teddy bear. As Conley said as she left: “She will never ever forget this – and that is the magic of pantomime.”

For once he was serious. He had done his job, entertaining an audience aged from three to 93 equally and showing children, many on their first visit, the real magic and wonderful world of live theatre.

Directed by Michael Harrison, Cinderella runs to 29-01-11.

Roger Clarke

Brian Conley will be back at the Hippodrome in April, 2012 as Fagin in Oliver! and will star in Robinson Crusoe and the Caribbean Pirates, next year's Hippodrome pant.

Lynda Bellinghamam will put away her wand when Cinderella ends on January 29 and get her posh frock off ready to open at the Hippodrome in Calendar Gilrs the following Tuesday, January 31.

Meanwhile with the glass slipper on the other foot


PEOPLE in the acting profession are advised never to work with children or animals, and the stars of this spectacular pantomime certainly receive some stiff competition from both.

Not that master entertainer Brian Conley (Buttons) or veteran actress Lynda Bellingham (Fairy Godmother) will worry too much, because four kiddies and two horses make a big contribution to the success of this traditional Christmas show.

The two little girls and two little boys join Conley on stage towards the end of the panto and there were howls of laughter on opening night when one of the girls began to sob and dad had to nip on stage and escort her to the loo!

She returned to the stage to join in a chorus of Old McDonald Had a Farm. This has been a successful ploy for the star for yonks – my own grand daughter, Sian, appeared with him in the spotlight at the Hippodrome about 14 years ago.

Buttons plays a dangerous game with the Ugly Sisters David Robbins and Martin Ramsdin

And the horses? One remarkable mechanical stallion flies above the orchestra towing Cinderella's glittering coach en route to the ball, and a wonderful real chestnut horse looks almost human as he responds to Conley's commands. Oh, and talking of animals, dear old Basil Brush appears as Baron Basil. While on the subject of flying, our Brian soars above the stalls on a motorbike, and lovely Lynda makes several trips across stage perched in the centre of a giant glitterball.

Solihull's Kathryn Rooney – I remember reviewing her as a kid in the BMOS Youtheatre – is ideal as Cinderella, and there are fine performances from Martin Ramsdin and David Robbins, the Ugly Sisters...never have so many magnificent costumes been worn by two ‘women' without improving their attraction one iota.

Matthew Goodgame (Prince Charming) and Dan Burton (Dandini) complete the leads.

This is Conley's fifth Hippodrome panto, and he will be back in 2012 with Robinson Crusoe. You can't keep a good man down, even though he mentions his demise as a TV performer.

Watching him work the audience so well you can only wonder why he isn't still appearing on our screens.

Michael Harrison is executive producer and director of the country's biggest pantomime, and Robert Willis is musical director. To 29.01.12

Paul Marston


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