Alan McHugh, with Ben Nickless and Les Dennis Qdos productions
Opera House, Manchester 08 December 2018 to 30 December 2018
This is the second year at the Opera House for mega panto producer Qdos, following 2017’s John Barrowman Dick Whittington, which not only won the Manchester Theatre Award trophy for Best Special Entertainment but also caused some considerable controversy for its risque jokes.
This year’s show is distinctly cleaner. The Ugly Sisters have a couple of light blue moments but nothing I think likely to cause undue offence. The problem this time around is that the show overall isn’t as exciting as we have a right to expect from the world’s largest pantomime producer.
Top of the bill are former Corrie arch villain Connor McIntyre, and his first Street victim, Les Dennis, as the Ugly Sisters. Dennis is an old hand at donning the frocks and falsies, for McIntyre it’s a first and it has to be said that as a duo they are a work in progress.
Pop singer Gareth Gates, as Prince Charming, pretty much lives up to his name and, partnered with CBBC’s Shannon Flynn as Cinders, they make an attractive central romantic couple. Hayley-Ria Christian as the Fairy Godmother and Jack Wilcox as Dandini offer strong support.
The night, however, belongs to Rochdale-born comedian Ben Nickless as Buttons, who, often quite brilliantly, holds the whole thing together by performing what must amount to his club act at various points throughout the show. He has some excellent material and his rapport with the audience is spot on. His omnipresence does tend to unbalance the storyline somewhat, but you could also say it leaves little time for the boring bits.
Most disappointing overall is the lack of scenic splendour. There is a superb coach and horses to take Cinders off to the ball – which soars out over the stalls – but the rest looks budget-conscious.
There’s a funny slapstick sequence, with the Uglies, Nickless and Gates near the end – at the point where I was dreading a song sheet – followed by a rather splendid walk down that certainly sends you out on a high. But I hope Qdos don’t think they can get away with this sort of level every year. We expect Birmingham Hippodrome standards or above, otherwise Manchester is being short changed.