If there’s one festive experience that unites us all then it’s the very British tradition of going to the pantomime something most of us did at least once during our youth. I personally remember trips to the Crewe Lyceum and the Wolverhampton Grand and seeing such stars as John Inman, June ‘Dot Cotton’ Brown, Allo Allo’s Gordon Kaye and err.. Linda Lusardi. Another person who has a very personal experience of pantomime is John Bishop who back in 2007 appeared in a production of Dick Whittington at the Salford Lowry in 2007 while he was still a jobbing DJ in Liverpool. Bishop has taken these experiences and turned them into a 90 minute comedy drama imaginatively titled Panto! in which he stars and has also co-written the script alongside Gimme Gimme Gimme scribe Jonathan Harvey.
Bishop stars as Lewis Loud an obnoxious local DJ who is starring in his first ever pantomime as Jack the Lad in Dick Whittington and the extremely expositional opening scene introduces us to all of the other characters. Firstly there’s Sheridan Smith’s former soap star Tamsin Taylor an attractive yet ditzy cockney who the nation grew to love as the soap’s serial killer Mad Mindy. Tamsin and Lewis are currently engaged in a very explicit affair which seems to involve grabbing each other’s private parts while indulging in nightly games of naked Kerplunk! Veteran character actor Michael Cochrane plays veteran Shakespearian actor Johnny Darby who has been reduced to playing the pantomime’s dame while constantly name-dropping famous thesps that he’s worked with in the past. Local pantomime regular and producer Di Jenkins has also cast her daughter Chantelle in the role of Alice though the nervous girl realises her limitations despite her pushy mother’s belief that she has got more talent than she has. The cast is rounded off by Chesney Hawkes, who also starred alongside Bishop in the 2007 pantomime, and predictably Di makes him perform ‘The One and Only’ about a dozen times during the production. Hawkes is also the proud recipient of a running gag where he is constantly getting injured to the extent where stagehands have to hold his guitar while he’s performing his biggest, and only, hit.
The first half of Panto! deals with the Dick Whittington dress rehearsal as we see the increasingly frustrated director, played by the brilliant Mark Benton, despair over Lewis’ bad stand-up routine and the fact that Chantelle’s singing isn’t what it should be. There’s also drama for Lewis when his ex-wife announces she’s going on holiday over Christmas and drops off their son Paul to spend the holidays with his less-than-pleased father. Lewis’ relationship with Paul isn’t exactly great as he missed his school play to sit in a bath of beans for Children in Need and he also hasn’t even played football with his son since he was five. Lewis also has to deal with the fact that Tamsin is getting a little bit close for comfort and she know wants the pair to be the latest celebrity couple on the block something he’s not too pleased about. There are more problems as Greg, whose playing the cat, won’t dance along with the rest of the cast while Johnny also reveals his own family issues to Paul and later has a quiet word with Lewis about regrets. As the pantomime begins there’s more drama as Paul’s mother returns from the airport desperate to spend Christmas with her son however she’s not quite prepared for his reaction to Lewis’ performance in the pantomime. There’s also news for Tasmin when her agent pops by with news of a reality TV offer which means that she’ll have to leave the production completely however she agrees to take the deal only if Lewis will accompany her.
Panto! is definitely not one of the most original programmes I’ve ever seen however seeing as this is Bishop’s first feature length dramatic script, after penning a Little Cracker last year, I can’t say I’m not a little impressed. Sure the dramatic elements are obvious and you can see exactly where each character will end up but I can’t say that I didn’t have fun while I was watching it. Bishop proved he could act earlier in the year with his appearances in Accused however here he is playing a slightly more obnoxious version of himself in Lewis Loud a DJ who has won a legion of fans despite his outdated on-air banter. His performance in the latter part of the programme, where Lewis learns some valuable life lessons, allows him to slightly flex his acting chop but overall I feel he’s playing the part more like his stand-up persona than he is actually acting. Bishop’s Accused co-star Sheridan Smith also seems to be having a whale of a time lapping it up as the tarty fame-hungry Tamsin as she dons a push-up bra and a thick Essex accent to play this girl who rushes into relationships too fast. Of the supporting cast both Michael Cochrane and Samantha Spiro stole the show as Johnny and Di with the former being the perfect choice to play a bitter thespian while the latter was great as the local busybody desperate for the performance to be a success. I also thought Ami Metcalf, who is busy this Christmas period after already appearing in Call the Midwife on Christmas Day, was great as Chantelle whose relationship with the shy stage hand was one of the gentler subplots that Panto! had to offer.
As far as the script goes you can certainly see the influence of Jonathan Harvey both in the selection of the inappropriate songs, which include ‘Like a Virgin’ and ‘So Macho’, as well as the large amount of Dick jokes that he manages to squeeze into the final scenes of the programme. Though most of the gags were obvious I can’t say I didn’t laugh occasionally with my favourite set piece being that of Chantelle’s version of ‘Like a Virgin’ that had been altered by her mother to mask the fact that she didn’t have the best singing voice. The final scenes of Panto! were incredibly cheesy and over-the-top but I felt they perfectly counterbalanced the madcap scenes that had come before. Ultimately Panto! was like going to see an actual pantomime as it featured lots of famous actors playing it for laughs and having a good time while they were doing it, a famous face mocking their past fame, gags that are obvious but still funny. Panto! is also something that you could really only enjoy over Christmas as if a programme came along at any other time of the year that was this riddled with cliché and obvious gags I might not look too favourably on it but as it is I have to admit I quite enjoyed it.
Did you watch Panto!? Did it bring back memories of your youth? Leave Your Comments Below.