Fine Time Fontayne and Chris Lawson
Oldham Coliseum company
November 16, 2019 - January 11, 2020; 2hr 20min
The Coliseum panto kicks off the Oldham Christmas season once again, safe in the knowledge that when new Dame Richard Fletcher walked on stage on Saturday night, that day a queue of people had stretched down the street from 7am and had already paid thousands to get good seats for first night 2020.
The love felt for this show in Oldham must offer quite a comfort zone for theatre management, but at the moment - only a couple of performances in - this year's event is a little rough.
Fine Time Fontayne, having given up the Dame role last year, remains as writer alongside the theatre's interim artistic director Chris Lawson, and the latter also directs.
So having thrown out some of the old, the new guard throws in a few new things, some good, some not so good.
The show needs a better opening, for instance - it's a little downbeat, with a home-grown song that should be a current pop hit to get everyone going (don't worry, there are plenty later). When Richard Fletcher - a fine comedy lead in the show for a decade - arrives he is not only nervous, rushing through his lines so fast he doesn't give the crowd a chance to follow the laughs, but he is also a little let down by a script that at first isn't terrifically funny either.
Luckily he and the show get better as the evening moves swiftly on... That starts at around 15 minutes in: nerves seem to settle and on comes Hazy, the cow whose sale supplies the magic beans.
Except this isn't two bit-players in a cow suit, but actor Mitesh Soni, done up like Dylan the rabbit from Magic Roundabout, as a character whose Peacenik platitudes wouldn't sound out of place in Hair. It's an inspired twist, with a performance that includes screwball dancing and renditions of I Like the Way you Moo and My Milkshake Brings All the Cows to the Yard...
After that the show gets in the swing: Celia Perkins' set might look a little less dayglow than in past years, with seemingly fewer big set pieces and costumes, and this year there's a slightly worthy (but far from overdone) theme of saving the planet - which introduces subjects such as Extinction Rebellion, plastic waste, litter, veganism and more. But once it picks up, the show doesn't let go, helped in no small part by David Bintley's musical direction.
It's all done in fun – the giant steals modern tech such as phones and computers to melt down the gold in them to make another gold egg to power his potentially world-ravaging monster robot, for example, so we can for now excuse the middling start (but not the rushed and mediocre slosh scene), for the evening exudes too much good humour and silliness overall.
Fletcher and Sam Glen (very watchable as Jack, the former's old role) are brilliant in a super-sharp version of the classic Abbot and Costello Who's on First sketch - I haven't seen it done better in recent years.
There are strong turns too from Patrick Bridgman as the local evil landowner, Lord Grabbmuch, and Shorelle Hepkin as his daughter Jill, latest in the modern line of feisty girl heroes.
I also enjoyed the performances of Sophie Mercell, endearingly funny as Grotton, Grabbmuch's henchwoman, and Jenny Platt, great (and with a strong voice) as Mavis Moorside, the Giant's wife.