Tuesday, September 26

Beauty and the Beast – Leeds City Varieties

I say it every year – oh yes, I do – that the success of any panto depends on how good their Dame is and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto has one of the best purveyors of that quintessentially British mix of laughs and seasonal smut in Simon Nock.

This is his fourth year at this historic city centre home of light entertainment and his Dame Bessie Bigbreaths – see what they did there – is a glorious mix of spraying out corny laughs for the children and some very near the knuckle gags for the not so young kids. He gets away with it – oh yes, he does – because he has charm to burn and times a gag well, combined with a wonderfully expressive raise of the eyebrow when the Dame has gone too far.

This is the tenth year of the Rock ‘n’ Roll franchise in Leeds who have become the masters of integrating songs that suit every taste into a traditional panto format. This production has blossomed from a fairly ramshackle affair perched on the front of this famously sloping stage to a full on old school panto that never tries to be clever or too post modern….oh no, it doesn’t.

Peter Rowe is one of the undoubted masters of panto – oh yes, he is – knowing just how much end of the pier smut to throw in that goes sailing over the heads of the kids as adults like me belly laugh at innuendos that would make Julian Clary blush.  Cunningly Rowe keeps in enough sight gags and well-timed slapstick to keep engaged children who might be making their first trip to the theatre.

The other big plus about this show is all the performers not only sing, but play instruments too – oh yes, they do. This year’s band was the tightest yet as the actors merrily switched instruments between scenes to play 21 – oh yes, they did – songs that help drive the ‘narrative’ along as Dawn Allsopp’s set makes the most of the limited space.

No-one needs an explanation of the plot for this show – oh no, they don’t – but Rowe actually gives it real heart as the cast belt out tunes from Robbie to The Supremes. There was even a wonderfully bonkers version of the Beastie Boys’ (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) courtesy of Alice Gruden and Timothy Roberts as the Beast’s servants.

Local lad Kenny Davies has been in this show since day one and was great value as the daft Sir Peacock Beauregarde bouncing off the Dame’s antics with great aplomb, and James William-Pattison as Desperate Dan battled it out with Bessy for the most cheap laughs.

Conor Mellor made a strong panto debut as the Beast gamely belting out Sweet Child of Mine in a comedy mask, and on her return to the show as Beauty it’s easy to see why the charming Grace Lancaster won Best Leading Lady at the Great British Pantomime Awards.

But the undoubted star of the show was Nock – oh yes, he was – as Dame Bessie who judged the raucous full house to perfection switching effortlessly from kid’s stuff to the more mature material with a knowing glance as he gleefully smashed down the fourth wall down in a series of increasingly over the top outfits.

Theatre snobs look down on panto because they regard it as broad fodder for the lower classes where actors just go over the top. They are dead wrong because it is an art form that is peculiar to these isles and crafting a multi-layered show like this involves a great deal of skill – oh yes, it does. It also requires a significant amount of acting skill and comic timing to carry off the daftness and onstage chaos that any good panto requires.

All the greats have played City Varieties – oh yes, they have – so this cast who produced the best version so far of this popular panto are continuing in that proud tradition of sending people home with a spring in their step. And, lord knows, we all needed two hours of well executed fun and daftness to put smiles back on our faces after a pretty grim couple of years.

Beauty and the Beast – The Rock ‘n’ Roll Panto is at Leeds City Varieties until Sunday 9 January. To book 0113 2430808 or visit https://leedsheritagetheatres.com/whats-on/beauty-and-the-beast-the-rock-n-roll-panto/

Reviewer: Paul Clarke

Reviewed: 2nd December 2021

North West End UK Rating: ★★★★