If you’re an ice-cold Scrooge like me, take one benefit from the rapidly quickening Christmas cycle with the swift return of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto to Leeds City Varieties.
This year, the Music Hall’s celebrated pocket-sized pantomime lands in the form of Red Riding Hood — a much-loved Brothers Grimm morality tale expanded by Peter Rowe into a winter wonderland adventure with over a dozen pop hit songs.
The story is much the same as every other panto formula; we have a darling female lead, a cape-twirling villain, a dashing prince, a fairy godmother and of course the obligatory pantomime dame on the hunt for a new man.
Naturally, the buoyant plot keeps the kiddies fully enthralled, but adults will appreciate an added dimension of terrible jokes, saucy asides and bold, brassy rock numbers from the Sixties up to the present day.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto is unique as it capitalises on the jewel-like scale of its Music Hall stage. Plenty of knockabout business takes flight in a challenging space, not much larger than the average-sized living room, giving the action a frantic yet intimate quality.
Extensive dance and choreography is meticulously directed to make maximum use of every inch, and the whole staging feels like an epic musical conducted in miniature.
A live band — comprised of actors on sax, trombone, trumpet and more — is positioned upstage and visible throughout, giving a view of the cast’s resourcefulness. Instruments are rapidly swapped for each big number, providing a reminder of the range of effort, energy and multi-skilled talent involved.
The ensemble is headed up by Lucy Keirl as Red Riding Hood, in a delightful songbird performance that’s bound to enchant kids. Opposite, Ben Mabberley brings a West End vocal quality as the dashing Prince Florizel.
Benjamin Stratton is devilishly good fun in a dual role as Jasper De Ville and Lupus the wolf, whilst Claire Greenway delivers a sprinkle of festive magic as Fairy Cherry Blossom.
Keeping with tradition, Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto veteran Kenny Davies returns in a boundless turn as Ruffles and Jack Frost — showcasing his great ability for physical comedy.
The acid test for a great panto is the quality of its dame and this year one of the finest returns to City Varieties. Simon Nock is an unstoppable force as Grandma Millie and is, for my money, the best on today’s panto circuit.
It’s dizzying to see Simon Nock and his sizable knockers back in action, handing over an outrageous performance with innuendo as close to the knuckle as you’d dare go. The performance rips from brash cougar to butch trucker in a flash, and Nock’s peerless destruction of the fourth wall — with relentless badgering of the audience — drives the show into blistering hysteria. A glorious cross between Pat Pheonix and Les Dawson, this is a true masterclass dame.
Much praise must also go to the show’s costume team headed up by Kate Rossiter, who escalates the dame’s wardrobe of dizzying bad taste to operatic levels with every scene. Judith Croft’s set design, combined with gig-quality sound and lighting, further enhances this small-scale show with big-scale production values.
So, it’s Christmas and the Rock ‘n’ Roll pantomime is back, better than ever. If you’re looking for one panto to pick this season, Red Riding Hood is the one. It’s pitched perfectly at kids whilst delivering enough rock and sauciness to keep the folks happy. Not sure if granny will get the gag about Millie’s lemon drizzle, though…