EXCLUSIVE: Comedian and writer Julian Clary (Julian Clary: Live – Lord of the Mince) will play the title role in this festive season’s London Palladium pantomime Robin Hood, with singer and travel show presenter Jane McDonald (Cruising with Jane McDonald) topping the bill as Maid Marion.

The annual Palladium show, now in its ninth consecutive season, has become an eagerly awaited staple in the West End’s calendar. It runs from December 7 through January 12, 2025. Priority booking opens 10 AM (GMT) April 25.

Last year’s production, Peter Pan, with comedy legend Jennifer Saunders (Absolutely Fabulous, French and Saunders) making her pantomime debut as Captain Hook, and with Clary playing Seaman Smee, was a sold-out success, playing 56 performances -often two a day – to an audience of more than 123,000 at the 2,200 capacity variety house.

When tickets went on sale, there was a moment when 90,000 people were in the queue, waiting their turn to book seats.

“That’s bigger than any 02 concert and bigger than any other West End show,” boasted Michael Harrison, who directs and writes the Palladium theatrics in collaboration with Clary. 

London Palladium. Photo by Baz Bamigboye/Deadline.

This year’s show, produced by Crossroads Pantomimes, of which Harrison is chief executive and David Ian is chairman, presents a cast of regulars and newcomers.

Returning are Paul Zerdin (Muppet Treasure Island) and Nigel Havers (Chariots of Fire), this year playing Will Scarlet and Friar Tuck.

Marisha Wallace, who appeared in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, was an Olivier award nominee for her Adelaide in Nicholas Hytner’s glorious revival of Guys & Dolls at the Bridge Theatre. She makes her panto bow as the show’s baddie, the Sheriff of Nottingham. West End audiences were introduced to her when she played Effie in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre.

Charlie Stemp, coming off his third Olivier award nomination this year for Crazy for You, returns to the Palladium as Alan-A-Dale. Prior to Crazy for You, Stemp was nominated for Cameron Mackintosh’s productions of Half A Sixpence and Disney’s Mary Poppins. From June 4, Stemp joins Adrian Dunbar (Line of Duty) and Broadway’s Stephanie J. Block (Into The Woods) in director Bartlett Sher’s production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate at the Barbican.

Comic artist Rob Madge (My Son’s A Queer (But What Can You Do?), no stranger to pantomime antics at the Palladium, returns as the Spirit of Sherwood.

Tosh Wanoghu-Maud, standing tall at over six foot, debuts as Little John. I’ve been a fan of Wanogh-Maud’s ever since I spotted him as Young Simba in The Lion King, which is still playing to strong houses at the Lyceum. More recently, the actor wowed as Ben E. King and Rudy Lewis in The Drifters Girl, which starred Beverley Knight .

Courtesy Crossroads Pantomimes.

Harrison told me that he wanted to have a year where Clary could play the title role, “Because obviously, he is central to it all. But he never plays the main role. It’s always kind of a role on the side looking in, even though the show’s always about him.”

Courtesy Crossroads Pantomimes.

The panto king shared that he thought it would be funny to have Robin Hood played by the famously camp Clary, and pair him with McDonald. The performer kicks off her With All My Love concert tour at Blackpool Opera House on October 11.

“Jane leapt at the chance,” Harrison said.

“I said, ”Look, can you imagine you and Julian Clary being in love?!” Talk about Robin Hood’s camp.”

McDonald has an enormous following in the U.K., thanks to her Cruising and other tv travel shows, including her Jane and Friends variety show and two decades, ending in 2023, as a presenter on Loose Women. Recently, she stopped by on an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK vs the World

Jane McDonald. Photo courtesy Jane McDonald.

Harrison told me that Clary relishes the idea of playing Robin Hood, though he won’t be as strapping as those who have played the outlaw on the big screen. I’m thinking of Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves, Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott’s gritty Robin Hood, and Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marion, playing the famous lovers in their twilight. Television’s first Robin Hood was Richard Greene in The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was in re-run by the time I caught up with it during my childhood. And let’s not forget Errol Flynn, with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, dashing about in Michael Curtis’s 1938 swashbuckler, The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Harrison laughed, then shook his head. “I’ve a funny feeling Julian’s Robin Hood will be getting Al-A-Dale to do a lot of the dirty work in this production.

“I think Alan-A-Dale might be the one to fire the bow and arrow.”

Harrison acknowledged that part of the Palladium pantomime’s appeal is its familiarity, though he admitted that “There’s always the criticism that it’s always the same. Well, I think people want the same, but also a little bit different, and this year’s going to be a little bit different.”

Each year, award-winning designer Hugh Durrant, in consultation with Clary, attempts to outdo the previous year’s gloriously outlandish costumes. “There are huge creations being cooked up at the moment, all linked to Sherwood and the forest,” Harrison promised.

Julian Clary in Jack and the Beanstalk,London Palladium 2022. Photo by Paul Coltas.

Hesitating a moment before asking, but I wondered whether Clary would be wearing a frock or tunic and tights?

“He’ll be in the Robin Hood gear, but all on a gargantuan scale,” Harrison assured. 

He noted that Clary’s doing his show onstage, “and then goes offstage in the wings and it’s another production with the costumes. Sometimes, it can take up to three dressers to get him into a costume. Those outfits are big set pieces.”

Julian Clary in Goldilocks, London Palladium 2019. Photo by Paul Coltas.

Not that Clary’s complaining.

With a wink, Harrison told me that Clary’s “looking forward to working with his Merry Men.”

Julian Clary’s in last year’s Palladium panto Peter Pan. Photo by Paul Coltas.

My social media’s packed with folk seeking to know the title of this year’s Palladium pantomime.

Harrison observed that “Audiences are kind of like another cast member, and they come along in the spirit of it, which is why I think we get away with things that, perhaps ordinarily, you wouldn’t.“

Though we both loath the word ‘woke’, Harrison agreed that the Palladium pantomime “is a woke-free zone.”

The clamor for tickets last year was such that Harrison, in agreement with Palladium owner Andrew Lloyd Webber, decided to allow standing spaces at the rear of the Palladium’s stalls. However, it caused a commotion at the first performance, when the creative team couldn’t stand in their usual spots because the general public were there.

“If only we had five more rows,” Harrison mused in jest.

The producer has a packed season, with Imelda Staunton’s turn in Hello,Dolly! opening at the Palladium for a limited run from July 6 through September 14, and the transfer to Broadway of Sunset Boulevard, previewing at the St. James Theatre from September 28, starring Nicole Scherzinger and Tom Francis, fresh from last weekend’s wins at the Olivier Awards at the Royal Albert Hall. The show won a total of seven Olivier Awards, including  best musical revival for Lloyd Webber, Don Black, Christopher Hampton, director Jamie Lloyd’s The Jamie Lloyd Company, Adam Speers and the Ambassador Theatre Group, and Lloyd Webber Harrison Musicals, the company formed by Lloyd Webber and Harrison to further exploit the composer’s oeuvre. 

A revival of Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, directed by Luke Sheppard, is also being overseen by Harrison. Sheppard’s recent productions include Live Aid musical Just For One Day, and The Little Big Things, which saw Amy Trigg win the best supporting actress in a musical Olivier Award.  

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