Writers: Jon Bradfield & Martin Hooper
Songs: Jon Bradfield
Director: Andrew Beckett
Saved by the bells! A fierce, naughty, and wickedly rude retelling of the story of panto favourite Dick Whittington is back at the Above the Stag with a vengeance after a Covid-curtailed run last winter.
The screamingly funny update of Dick Whittington: A New Dick in Town crashes onto the stage with an attitude determined to slay any pandemic, doing its best to assert with confidence for the nervous that, “It’s behind you!”
While it may be too early for this to be a totally post pandemic panto, this seasonal show seems to symbolise the general defiance of theatre-makers to survive against all odds with a bright, brash and breezy gem that is a joy from start to finish.
As with all adult pantos at the Vauxhall venue this Dick is a cut above the average and there’s a real sense with this production that the emphasis is on entertaining those who have missed their theatre fix over the past 20 months.
Regulars will know to expect the highest quality at this small and cosy venue and writers Jon Bradfield and Martin Hooper (who have written 12 pantos for Above the Stag) don’t disappoint with a script that fizzes with filthy humour, bursts with energy, warmly inflicts the innuendo and heightens the hilarity in a rich production paved with gold.
Unsurprisingly there’s a deluge of Dick jokes (even the more family-friendly productions of this story stray into that territory these days) but this isn’t a show that relies on the superficial, even though there is barely a mention of the eponymous hero without a lascivious line. Rather, this is a superbly-crafted piece that – like the funeral parlour at the heart of the narrative – aims to give everyone a happy ending.
The traditional tale is twisted so that Richard Whittington arrives in London from Gloucester to make his fortune accompanied not by a cat but by Instagram star “People’s Pup” Ariana, a puppet prop that quickly wins audience hearts. Bounced from an intended design career at a fashion house by a dastardly Queen Rat, Dick ends up working for the Fitzwarren undertaker’s business (“putting the fun back into funerals”) and becomes involved in a country-hopping plot to save the family business as well as being “London’s best hope to stop s**t going down.”
Director Andrew Beckett (an accomplished Above the Stag favourite) ensures the story moves at a pace, without losing the heart of what makes pantomime so lovable – there’s plenty of audience participation, a song sheet, political side swipes, catchy songs (courtesy of Bradfield, with stylish musical direction from Aaron Clingham), thrown sweets and colourful sets.
Thankfully appearing once more as the Dame is the witty and waspish Matthew Baldwin as Sarah, here stripped of her usual cook status in favour of being the wife of Cyril Fitzwarren the funeral director. Baldwin is fabulous and faultless and gets to deliver some inventive Cockney rhyming slang, cleaner examples being “McKellen’s Lear” = fear and “peanut butter on toast” = ghost as well as showing off a breath-taking array of costumes (stunning designs by Robert Draper and Sandy Lloyd).
Her social-distancing aware husband Cyril (who keeps shouting “two metres!”) is played by Bradley Walwyn, who also has the chance to show off his camper side as Cyril’s twin Cecil – where oh where could his tattoo of the code for the safe which contains the family millions be?!
Dick is played wonderfully by Jonny Peyton-Hill, a lively and likeable picture of naivety with an eye on sexual and social success. He is guided beautifully by the Fitzwarren’s son Alex, the love interest who also has to take on the mantle of the Spirit of London – a cheeky and winning performance from Keanu Adolphus Johnson.
Completing the five star quintet is Nikki Biddington as the wicked Queen Rat, devious and dark and loving the audience boos and hisses. It’s her professional debut and on this evidence it won’t be long before she is stealing the leads in major shows.
Above the Stag has been playing a blinder with its design team recently, and Dick Whittington: A New Dick in Town is no exception: set (David Shields), lighting (Jamie Platt) and sound (Paul Gavin) are all worthy of awards, but special mention must go to George Reeve’s video design, which complements every scene change with seamless shifts between rat-filled sewers and holiday island paradise.
You don’t have to be queer, you just have to be here to enjoy one of the most eagerly-awaited and side-splittingly finest panto productions in the country for the festive season
Continues until 16 January 2022