You've got to hand it to Basil Brush. After more than half a century of 'boom booming' he's still remarkably bushy-tailed and sparkly-eyed.

In fact, the foxy little fellow remains as popular with young and old as he was when he set out on the showbiz trail when little more than a cub.

The audience response to his appearance in last winter's pantomime at The Theatre Royal, Windsor, was so enthusiastic that he's been brought back this year. And, though it might be best not to mention it to the human members of the cast, Basil's top of the bill!

It's no mean achievement because this much-cherished Windsor venue, with its long tradition of staging top class and hugely-enjoyable pantos, remains one of THE venues to enjoy the annual festive feast of fun, sparkle and glamour.

Appropriately enough, with Basil Brush heading the line-up, this time the offering is Beauty and the Beast, though the old fox is not cast in the role of the latter.

That honour goes to singer Rhydian, X Factor runner-up whose latest record spent 10 weeks at the top of the classical music charts. The hardship of having to wear a cumbersome, beastly disguise for much of the show, does nothing to constrict his singing abilities and he's still able to use his remarkable voice to full effect with a powerful performance that wins over even the most cynical in the audience.

His vocal prowess is matched by Sheila Ferguson, who surely never dreamed 40 years ago when she was topping the pop charts with The Three Degrees, that she would one day be appearing amid the preposterous shenanigans of a British pantomime in all its glory, alongside a glove puppet and a man dressed as a woman.

As the wicked witch Maleficent she is is sinister and sexy - perhaps Prince Charles will be tempted in to see the lead singer of what was purported to be his favourite pop group in the 1970s. Even Basil Brush shows his vocal skills in an hilarious routine when he's dressed as Elvis - though there's a little bit of work to do before he's on a par with Rhydian and Sheila!

 

Beauty and the Beast is one of the less-performed traditional pantos but the story still lends itself to plenty of familiar and favourite ingredients of the genre.

This year's show is again the brainchild of actor and writer Steven Blakeley, who has a passion for pantomime that shows no sign of dissipating.

He returns for his sixth winter season at the venue and, for the third time, he has written the script. A well-known face from TV's Heartbeat, he's also instantly recognisable from his role in a small screen advert for a certain rail company.

His carefully-constructed blend of rollicking good humour, and outrageous fun, with hoary old jokes, some wonderful wordplay and even a mild bit of naughtiness to bring a smirk to the faces of the youngsters in the audience, proves to be just the ticket.

As Dolly Do-It he expounds all the much-loved mannerisms and characteristics of the traditional pantomime dame and ensures the carefully-honed skills and stagecraft of those who have trodden the Windsor boards in that role over the years, are perpetuated.

His costume changes are a wonder to behold and the highlight of his 'striptease', when he appears within a split second in a shimmering silver robe, is a quite remarkable piece of timing and teamwork, and the crowning moment of the evening for the wardrobe department .

Steven's 'partner in crime' again this year is the irrepressible and energetic all-rounder Kevin Cruise, a man who could have been born to perform in pantos. Returning to the Theatre Royal for the umpteenth time, he hurls himself, quite literally at times, into the role of Willy Do-It.

Young Georgina Leonidas as Belle, who, despite her initial terror, ignores the Beast's outward appearance and befriends and finally falls in love with him, is certainly not overwhelmed by the sparkling array of panto talent all around her.

A former child actress, she is perfect for the part, and, unlike some who appear in such roles, is obviously full of enthusiasm and enjoying herself immensely. She even copes with Basil Brush and his cheekiness without flinching, not surprising really as she appeared alongside him in no fewer than 61 TV shows a decade ago.

It's many years since Sally Geeson was seen regularly on TV in the Sid James sitcom Bless This House, but, despite almost two decades out of the business while following a career in education, proves she has lost none of her acting skills. In the role of the Fairy Beneficent, she brings a wholesome stability to the production - and even manages to name-check her old comedy show in her final rhyming couplet!

Michael Winsor, who first appeared in a Theatre Royal panto in 1989, makes a return 25 years on as Maurice, Belle's father, and does everything asked of him, including leading a fine version of The Pretenders' hit I'm Gonna Be (500 miles), a number which had the entire auditorium joining in with gusto.

Basil Brush isn't the only star of children's entertainment on view at Windsor this year as Postman Pat makes a special delivery too, a delight for the very young in the audience. It's just a pity the boffins can't devise some way of making his mouth move when he speaks. Perhaps someone can address the problem!

The ensemble dancers are up to Windsor's usual immaculate standards, while the live band, directed from the keyboard by Lindsey Miller, manage to cope with all the distractions on stage to enliven the show with a satisfyingly-good musical backdrop.

Skilfully directed by Roger Redfarn and with a sequence of sensational scenery, this is panto at its best - a glittering cornucopia of laughter, slapstick, ad libs and soulful singing that provides a Christmas treat for all ages.

Beauty and The Beast is at The Theatre Royal, Windsor, until Sunday January 11. Contact the box office on 01753853888 or theatreroyalwindsor.co.uk. Don't leave it too late as some shows are already sold out.