KING Billy is back - holding court at the Alhambra in a spectacular return to panto.

After an absence of nearly two years, due to the pandemic, Yorkshire’s biggest pantomime has returned to the Bradford stage, to the delight of packed audiences this week.

Pantomime is steeped in the walls of the Alhambra, a theatre built by ‘Panto King’ Francis Laidler, and this fabulous production of Sleeping Beauty pays tribute to the traditions of panto, with plenty of knockabout fun, while embracing the technical wizardry of modern theatre, with some awesome special effects. Along the way there are quickfire gags, saucy one-liners and first-class physical comedy.

Of course it’s a different experience this year, not least because the audience must wear face masks. There’s no sweet-throwing, or kids up on stage and, sadly, for perhaps the first time in the Alhambra’s panto history, there are no Sunbeams, all due to Covid restrictions.

But despite all that, this is a terrific show, with Bradford’s favourite funnyman at the helm. Bradford welcomed Billy Pearce with rapturous applause. “Hiya kids! I’m King Billy - this year,” he beamed at the start of last night’s show, throwing us his annual panto greeting that was sorely missed last year. Nobody does panto quite like Billy - he has the energy of a man half his age, exquisite comic timing, huge warmth for his audience, and a deep respect and understanding of the art and craft of pantomime.

His endearing cheeky charm had the audience eating out of his hands, including Heather from Thackley, picked as Billy’s front row stooge for the night. He set the tone just right, shifting seamlessly between family-friendly gags and layered innuendo, and had us in stitches all night.

Stepping up as Billy’s righthand man is TV doctor and presenter Dr Ranj, who lit up the stage as the Royal Doctor. Despite a croaky voice, he showcased an impressive singing voice.

Liz Ewing gave a scene-stealing performance as Queen Carabosse, the evil godmother whose cruel curse sends Princess Aurora to sleep at the prick of a spinning wheel needle. We all love a panto baddie - especially the little boy in front of me, who booed louder than anyone every time she appeared on stage - and Liz was terrific.

And the excellent Sarah Goggin gave us a princess with attitude, rocking a pair of red Doc Martens as cool Narcissa.

Well done to Billy, Dr Ranj, Liz and Sarah for the hilarious 12 Days of Christmas routine - a highlight of the show, which put the Telegraph & Argus centre stage!

Great performances too from Brogan McFarlane as Princess Aurora, Sabrina Aloueche as the Good Fairy, and the fabulous young dancers who brought glitterdust to the impressive musical numbers.

With a show-stopping flying stunt created by The Twins FX, this was a spectacular show, beautifully directed by Ed Curtis.

Although producers must be understandably anxious about ever-changing Covid restrictions, the return of panto should be celebrated as a symbol of the theatre industry’s resilience. Panto is hugely important to the economy of regional theatres, and helps to bring in a new generation of audiences. And it provides employment for a whole team of people, on and offstage, who have been hard hit by the impact of the pandemic.

And of course, panto is an integral part of Christmas for many people - and if ever there was a time for this kind of family entertainment, it is right now. 
“We’ve got to bring extra joy this year, we’ve got to give more because people have lost more,” Billy told the T&A.
“Families are the heart of the pantomime and I hope that people come out and support us after the pandemic. It’s all just a bit of fun that we get to call our job.
“Theatre magic is engrained in the bricks of the Alhambra building and that’s why it’s the best theatre to perform in.”
Well done to all at the Crossroad Pantomimes team - director Ed Curtis, choreographer Stillie Dee, writer Alan McHugh, musical supervisor Gary Hind, lighting designer Matt Clutterham, set designer Ian Westbrook, sound designer Richard Brooker, musical directors George Dyer and Richard Anderson, and Mike Coltman for speciality costumes. These people don’t generally get mentioned in theatre reviews, but after the 20 months or so that their industry has had, this team deserves some credit.  
If Francis Laidler is looking down, I reckon that he would be applauding the cast and crew of this production. It is thanks to them, and the excellent Bradford Theatres staff, that the show goes on, and that Laidler’s panto legacy rolls out of the recent darkness and into a new era. 

So thank you, Billy and the gang - it’s great to have you back.

* Sleeping Beauty runs at the Alhambra until January 16, 2022. For tickets call (01274) 432000 or go to