A NIGHT out at the Alban Arena’s Christmas panto in St Albans has become a tradition each year for many families and groups, as it has, I’m glad to say, for ours too.
In fact, taking our seats in the packed house on Sunday night was like joining friends for the treat we all knew we were in for.
The atmosphere was buzzing even before the 2019 production of Sleeping Beauty began.
This is the tenth pantomime at the Alban Arena for husband and wife producer team Emily Wood and Paul Hendy – also the writer – whose award-winning company Evolution Productions stages eight pantos around the country each year.
Pantomime tradition is in safe hands with them.
So, with the stage set, the tale’s main characters entered one by one – wicked fairy Carabosse (formerly Roxy Mitchell in EastEnders’), loveable companion Jangles (CBeebies’ star Andy Day), Nurse Nellie (legendary dame and Alban Arena favourite Bob Golding who is also the show’s director), King Larry of Letchworth (Ian Kirkby, another Alban Arena veteran), Princess Aurora (Jemma Carlisle, who is back after appearing in Cinderella last year) and Prince Charming (Phillip Ryan, who has appeared in Mamma Mia!), plus Fairy Moonbeam played by Lisa Davina Phillip (with many TV and theatre credits).
She was first on stage, resplendent and sparkly in yellow and with a bright and cheeky personality to match. Funny, engaging and with a great voice too, she started the ball rolling with the mandatory audience participation required of us ‘peasants’ in the kingdom of Hamalot. And the ham was sliced and laid on thick throughout.
We all responded with vigour and volume, especially the school groups of youngsters.
The tone was set early. We couldn’t get enough of the cringe-worthy jokes with plays on words that were really clever, the slapstick antics and some pacey musical numbers from all members of the cast. A rousing rendition of Come Alive from The Greatest Showman was a highlight.
Rita as Carabosse made a beautiful but menacing baddie and easily fielded some non-scripted comments from an unruly young ‘peasant’ in the audience. She was particularly scary when wandering through the auditorium wielding her wand like a sword at the children of all ages she professed to ‘hate’.
As befits the romantic interest in the piece, Princess Aurora and Prince Charming were sweet and sang beautifully together. Their voices harmonised perfectly.
But I must say what really makes the Alban Arena panto for me is Bob Golding. He commands the stage whenever he’s on it, and he’s on it most of the time. This year’s comedy set pieces included the vegetable wordplay scene with tongue twisters such as ‘Benedict Cucumberbatch’ and a soakingly super highlight with what must have been a very technically difficult bathroom scene.
It’s amazing that Golding is also this show’s director, a role that the 49-year-old confided after the show was quite a challenge, although great fun.
He doesn’t live in St Albans, but the father-of-four sees the town as his spiritual home and loves the St Albans audience. He first came to the area with a Tweenies’ production in 1999 and has been returning ever since.
“Our whole ethos is family,” he said. “The pantos are written and produced by a family; I like to think of the cast as a family who look out for each other and that the audience feels they are part of a family gathering for all ages.”
There are a couple of mildly naughty jokes in the panto just for the adults that go over the heads of younger audience members, but it is never too much, nor uncomfortable.
The producers’ three children – Freddie, 14; Poppy, 10; and Jago, seven – are obviously fully committed to the family tradition as they hold the Guinness World Record for watching the most pantomimes in a year.
No doubt they also grew up watching Andy Day on the telly in many children’s favourites, including Andy’s Wild Adventures.
Andy said he too loves coming to St Albans to perform, and added: “I was born in Luton and Dunstable Hospital and lived in the area for some years. I love coming back here.”
He told us that his latest venture will see him realise a long-held ambition of forming a band – Andy and the Oddsocks. Look out for his new show, Andy and the Band, on CBBC next year.
But make sure you catch him in Sleeping Beauty before the season ends.
It will be the start of your own Christmas family tradition, I can guarantee it.
The Alban Arena, Civic Centre, St Albans, until Friday, January 3, various times. Details: 01727 844488 alban-arena.co.uk