Panto has a rich history at the iconic London Palladium. After an absence of nearly 30 years, it returned in 2016 for a new annual 21st Century production and has become a staple of the Christmas season ever since. After four incredible and successful years, it looked like panto would have to take another break this year. Luckily the Lord smiled down on us - Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, that is - and thus, Pantoland at the Palladium was born.
Featuring memorable moments from the past four years at the Palladium, Pantoland isn't so much a lazy rehash as it is a brilliant greatest hits set filled with new material alongside a host of old favourites. If you were worried about the lack of a plot holding this show together, you've clearly never been to a Palladium panto before. Previous years have made fun of the paper-thin plot but taking any semblance of plot away altogether actually works in its favour, creating more of a variety show and cramming more in. Let's be honest - who really cared what happened to Dick Whittington?
As always the show is centred around everybody's favourite ringleader - Julian Clary. With increasingly ridiculous outfits, more innuendo than you could shake a stick at and the best comic timing you will see on a West End stage, he ensures that hilarity ensues whenever he in on stage. Palladium panto regulars Nigel Havers, Paul Zerdin and Gary Wilmot all return for encore performances. Havers endures constant jabs at his career, Zerdin showcases his brilliant ventriloquism, while Wilmot has several incredible skits including a returning favourite where he impressively names every tube station in London.
Other returning favourites include Ashley Banjo & Diversity bringing a touch of class to the affair with their phenomenal routines. Everybody's favourite chimney sweep makes a long awaited return to the West End stage with Charlie Stemp giving us all some more of his Dick. He is joined by Jac Yarrow, making his panto debut but returning to the Palladium stage after winning rave reviews in Joseph last year. Together they make a fantastic triple threat double act though most of their time is spent in the shadow of Julian Clary. Look out for their hilarious performance as Boyzone!
Elaine Paige returns as villain Queen Rat. Even dressed as a rodent and changing the lyrics to something more humorous, her first number 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' from Sunset Boulevard proves to be more emotional than you would expect at a pantomime. The (thankfully unchanged) lyric "This world's waited long enough. I've come home at last" hits different after thinking about everything theatre has had to go through this year. Her hilarious duet of 'I Know him so well' with Julian about which one of them knows Charlie Stemp's Dick Whittington makes a welcome return, with "I've been sizing up your Dick" one of the funniest lines I've ever heard in the theatre.
Making her Palladium panto debut is the incomparable Beverley Knight. Always able to deliver a vocal masterclass, take Beverley away from a stage for 9 long months and watch what she does with her vocals. I've seen her perform a large number of times but this time around was something else - she left absolutely everything on that stage. From an opening number of 'Finding Pantoland' (from Finding Neverland) to a stunning 'The Great Clowns of Pantomime', lyrics including finding your inner child and thanking everybody who brings us joy in theatre really carried more depth than you would expect from a show with so much innuendo in. Hearing her sing 'I Will Always Love You' on a West End stage again was a real highlight... even if she was in a puppets shadow during it.
In terms of safety, I couldn't fault the Palladium. Compulsory face masks, social distanced seating, a one way system, hand sanitiser, contactless bag checks and temperature checks meant they had every box ticked. You felt there was no danger there... apart from the possibility Julian Clary would make eye contact and rip you a new hole. The looming threat of London being placed in Tier 3 would be heartbreaking considering how unbelievably safe the whole experience felt.
The show ended with one of the longest and loudest applauses I have ever witnessed, complete with a seemingly never-ending standing ovation. Nine months without theatre came to a head and for one minute (well, more like ten minutes) everybody in the theatre - cast, crew, creatives and audience all shared one incredible and moving moment. It was so very much deserved though - seeing how much it meant to the cast in stage (including an incredibly emotional Beverley Knight) made it all worthwhile.
Pantoland at the Palladium is just what the Doctor ordered (though the vaccine will help too). After a tough year for all of us, to be able to sit in a theatre, enjoying some of the biggest and best names the UK has to offer and, most importantly, being able to laugh was very much needed. And boy, did I laugh. My fourth year at the Palladium for their annual pantomime, I came out of there confident I had just seen the best one. The choice to include past routines alongside brilliant new ones was a genius touch and meant the performance on stage never fell below sheer perfection.
It looked uncertain for a while but I am so thankful we get to go to Pantoland this year - one of the best things about this write-off of a year. Beg, steal or borrow for a ticket to this all singing, all dancing, all laughing spectacular.
Pantoland at the Palladium runs at the London Palladium until Sunday 3rd January 2021. Tickets available from lwtheatres.co.uk