Reviewed by Jono Oates
You know when Christmas is nearly here when you hear those magic words…Panto! This year’s production at the Lichfield Garrick is the very traditional Dick Whittington and if you’re looking to get into the Christmas spirit there is no better way than coming along to this fabulous, funny and fast-paced Christmas Cracker of a panto!
Dick Whittington is the only panto to be based on a real person, Richard Whittington, a former Mayor of London in medieval times who travelled from Gloucester to find fame and fortune, along with his faithful cat, and also well known for the famous phrase ‘Turn Again Whittington’, imploring him to return to London after being dismissed.
This Lichfield version of Dick Whittington is in very safe hands, with Evolution Productions looking after the staging of the Garrick panto for the third year running and a very experienced cast of stars from the stage and screen taking to the stage. Leading the way are actors Sam Rabone and Ben Thornton, again in their third season here at Lichfield, and this magic formula of ingredients creates a spell-bounding and hilarious performance!
The plot of Dick Whittington (not that you need worry too much about the plot!) is based around the hero, who travels from his home town of Gloucester to the bright lights of London, befriending a cat, Tommy (although ‘Tommy’ seemed to have undergone a sex change in the performance we saw…) as well as meeting the beautiful Alice Fitzwarren, daughter of the London Alderman. Dick is falsely accused of stealing the Alderman’s gold and is banished from London, much to Alice’s disappointment, but he returns to clear his name and win the hand of Alice in marriage. He is helped by the wand-wielding, wish-granting Fairy Bowbells but is hampered by the evil sword-wielding Queen Rat and her feral army of rodents who are threatening to overrun the capital. Also helping Dick (or should that be hindering) are Dolly the Cook and her son, Billy.
This show truly has everything for everyone in the family and across all ages. The youngsters can boo and hiss Queen Rat, cheer Fairy Bowbells and shout out ‘He’s Behind You’ at every given opportunity, the teenagers can sing along to the songs and laugh at the slapstick routines and the mums and dads can have a chuckle at the more ‘mature’ jokes.
The show is written by the experienced scriptwriter Paul Hendy and the script is witty, clever and chock-full of jokes, both traditional and topical. Some of the jokes hit you in the face like a custard pie but others are more subtle and take some looking out for – there is a fab, clever joke about a cat with nine lives which is definitely worth spotting along the way. It’s also always fun trying to spot some of the ad-libs and ‘bloopers’ while trying to work out if they’re part of the script or not – I’ve been trying to detect the deliberate from the accidental for years and still can’t work it out!
Ben Thornton as Billy and Sam Rabone as Dolly (who also directs the show) are both fabulous and, after three years of working together, know each other very well and the chemistry between them is very clear to see. The ‘Slosh Scene’ is a panto essential and this year’s is another classic. Set in a rolling and pitching ship’s galley, both actors slip and slide, crash and fall and hit the deck with bruise- inducing regularity while being covered in slop and slime. This is hilarious slapstick but it is definitely not slapdash, the timing in this scene is both highly comic and expertly performed, definitely one of the highlights of the show.
Experienced panto performer Ashley Emerson is handsome and dashing as our hero Dick, with a strong singing voice. Beccy Lane plays the lovely and perky Alice with a sweet voice and she and Ashely make a well matched pair of lovers. Katrina Bryan (star of Cbeebies’ Nina and the Neurons) is perfect as Fairy Bowbells and flies across the Garrick stage with consummate ease and some funny one-liners. Ieuan Rhys (you may well think he is Welsh…you’d be right…) is an avuncular Alderman Fitzwarren Joanne Heywood, who has a host of TV and stage credits, is good fun as the evil Queen Rat but who plays her part with a softer side and, despite the boos for the children, is a not-so-evil Queen Rat. Lucy Parry is full of energy and bounce as Tommy the Cat (or should that be Gertrude…) and despite a very limited vocabulary manages to make her single word ‘miaow’ sound threatening, encouraging, sad, funny and poignant all at the same time. Nicolais Kerry is also full of energy as he performs backflips across the stage and certainly caught the eye of the ladies in the audience with his very manly Sultan of Morocco outfit.
The ensemble cast perform some lively routines and join in the fun and games with gusto, look out for the smallest cast member who gives everything to her performance and is looked after by the more experienced cast members. I always love it when the whole cast are on stage and this cast look very happy and clearly enjoy every single moment, the smiling faces and laughs are all genuine and not forced, they are obviously having the time of their lives. This filters across the stage and over the audience, it is easy to get caught up in the experience and find yourself shouting out ‘He’s Behind You’ with the rest of them.
The music is directed by Dave Culling with just the right balance of volume and a lighter touch for the ballads. The choreography by Simon Barnum is bright and lively and the costumes are truly fabulous, especially the amazing, multi-coloured, multi-change costumes of Dolly the Cook, overseen by Wardrobe Mistress Katherine Newbury (and the panto wardrobe changes are the most challenging in any theatre production).
The special effects are dazzling and if you’re going to see the show don’t forget to pick up your 3-D glasses (provided by the theatre) for the start of the second act, the underwater scenes are fantastic and the dangling-legged octopus is amazing.
Special mention to Karen Foster and all of the staff and volunteers at the Garrick Theatre who provide a warm, friendly and professional welcome, the whole evening runs like clockwork and there is a perfect synergy between the on-stage, and off stage, performance. The show is co-produced by Paul Hendy and Emily Wood.
Dick Whittington is a perfect way to start the Christmas holidays, or a perfect pick-me-up after the excesses of Christmas Day, it is true family entertainment and is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face, and a gladness in your heart, as you leave the theatre’s exits. It makes no difference whether you’re three or ninety-three, man, woman, child, mother, uncle, great-great grandmother, in a family group or just on your own, this performance is bound to send you home happy and ready for Christmas. So, if you walk past the Garrick today and don’t get a ticket for the show ‘Turn Again Whittington’ and make your way back to the Box Office for your tickets – you won’t regret it!
For the original review, click here.