Dick Whittington, TRSE Pictured Ashley Gerlach, Photo credit Robert Day
Christmas pantomimes ('pantos' to you and I) are tricky beasts. Is it enough to simply bow to the acknowledged conventions, fill the auditoriums with children (and their guardians) and let the waves of familiarity/cliché sweep us off to the box-office and/or exits? Is it okay to tick all the boxes, and be 'simply' entertaining?
Is it sufficient to give the audience just what they expect? Is it 'over-egging the pudding' (under-cheesing the panto?) to do anything other than be adequate... however skillfully? In short, is the traditional panto critic-proof? If the answer is 'yes' to all these questions then 'Dick Whittington', the Christmas panto on at theatre Royal Stratford East, should get a five-star review. I, however, tend to lean on the side of 'Oh, no it isn't'
for all the above questions. And so... let us start at the beginning:
The theatre being full, it was a delight to see so many children expectantly awaiting 'curtain-up'; adults, too. At the start, the celebrated deaf actress Caroline Parker (as 'Fairy Bow Bell') set out 'the rules' of panto (as well as wishing someone 'Happy Birthday') This gave us the impression
that she would be our narrator for the evening. However, apart from a couple of 'cat-altering' spells, she seemed to disappear for the rest of the play. No matter; her skill at 'signing', as well as her rapport, with both audience and musical director, made up for the inconsistency of her role.
After that... well, you all know the story of 'Dick Whittington and his cat': "... the story follows the fate of Dick as he embarks on a
fortune seeking adventure with his friend 'Cool Cat' to the glittering East End. But ever lurking in the shadows is the rotten-to-the-core King Rat - they'll need all the audience's sing-a-long support to help stop him, and become Mayor of Stratford Town."
The traditional 'streets paved with gold' story is augmented with tales of exotic cheese(s), and a trip to the moon(!). In fact, as the main characters all go to space to replace the 'exotic cheese' stolen by the thieving, flatulent 'King Rat', most of the second act takes place on the planet cheese (I know... it's a panto).
Needless to say, all is restored to normal when Cool Cat (with the aid of the previously-briefed audience) rids the planet of rats, the cast returns to 'Lowdown Town', Mister Whittington becomes The Mayor, and everybody becomes friends (even a repentant 'King Rat').
Ashley Gerlach made an engaging 'Dick Whittington', and special praise must go out to Tony Jayawardena as 'Cool Cat', Delroy Atkinson as 'Shirley the Cook', and Miranda Menzies as 'Alien Queen', all of whom had genuine show-stopping moments. In fact I have to say that Miss Menzies, with her
double-jointed, tongue-twisting, splits-delivering 'Alien Queen', was especially amazing. The songs, ranging in style from 'light reggae' to pop, never
quite delivered a melody to outlast the length of the songs themselves, but were all delivered with vim and brio by the cast, and the three-strong live band. By the end, claps were clapped, hoots were hooted, bows were bowed, curtsies were... well... curt, and everybody enjoyed the ride.
Now... you're probably thinking 'what's happened to your child-like wonder, and love for the 'panto form'? Before you all cry out, 'It's behind you', let me explain: The pantomimes that I remember loving (both as a child and as an adult), all seemed to engage with the zeitgeist in some way or another, by using an important news topic, or well-known celebrity-of-the-day, and riffing on them through the course of the show. This tended to 'ground' the panto in the 'contemporary now', and keep both adults and children engaged with familiar, and up-to-date, topics and/or well-known characters, thus making the piece more relatable and, therefore, more universally funny (in my opinion). Apart from King Rat's initial (sung) introduction about 'taxation', there was precious-little social commentary, or contemporary relevance in the piece. In fact, during the space-trip home, Miss Parker was left to 'narrate' excerpts of every 'space' pop song over the last forty years (from 'Space oddity' by David Bowie to 'Man on the moon' by REM). So much for 'doing it for the kids'!
Having said all that, the piece is well performed, staged, costumed, and produced, and I saw enough laughing children (and adults) to convince me that the vast majority will enjoy this production. But there's still something that uneases me. Is it that the biggest (and longest) chant of the evening was
'I like Dick (Whittington)'? Oh, no it isn't! Is it that pantos, on this evidence, are 'dumbing down'? Oh, yes it is! Ps; 'Beauty and the (tricky) Beast' next year. Good luck.
Info: Dick Whittington is at Theatre Royal Stratford East until January 11, 2014 | Book tickets