Director / Choreographer: Gary Lloyd
Writers: Alan McHugh / Jonathan Riley
Reviewer: Helen Tope
It has been thirty years since this reviewer’s last pantomime. During this time it’s safe to say that pantomime has undergone some changes.
Starring John Partridge and Samantha Womack, this year’s pantomime boasts all the recognisable hallmarks. A lovestruck boy in search of glory; a glamorous Dame and a nefarious villain hell-bent on ruining it all. It all looks the same as a traditional pantomime, but beneath the sparkling sets and beautiful costumes, there is a point of difference.
Dick Whittington in 2018 is a pantomime that’s very much culturally aware. The music and choreography is bang up-to-date – there are no cosy scene-settings either. We leap straight into the action, with an introduction to the villain of the piece, King Rat (played by John Partridge).
Partridge (EastEnders, Celebrity MasterChef) gives the traditional pantomime villain an upgrade, not to mention a serious dose of sex appeal. Dressed head-to-toe in leather, this King Rat demands our attention. Partridge’s background in musical theatre serves him well: his performance, the best of the night, is stylish and seductive. It is a 21st-Century re-imagining of the panto boy, and Partridge delivers a level of sophistication that will definitely keep audiences watching.
What is immediately obvious is how this pantomime understands its changing role in children’s lives. Competing against a world of media that be accessed from a phone, pantos have had to adapt in order to survive. Dick Whittington is true to type; cleverly blending the classic and contemporary. Andy Ford (Idle Jack) and Nigel Ellacott (Felicity Fitzwarren) provide the archetypal double-act we are used to seeing on stage. They riff, they joke, they fluff their lines, and they make it look incredibly easy. The song and dance numbers, performed to popular hits, in comparison read a little flat. We may recognise the tune, but the connection simply isn’t there.
Anything that makes theatre a fun experience should be applauded, but the question is whether the cross-referencing of pop culture from Hairspray to Baby Shark means borrowing personality, rather than creating it. The production’s dependence on perfectly-choreographed dance numbers is a problem: when it comes to good panto, perfection isn’t boring, it’s stultifying. It is when this pantomime allows itself to be different, that the magic happens; the comedy duo getting more stage time than the love interests; an openly-gay actor playing an openly-gay villain. This is how a genre moves forward.
Every panto’s success leans on its cast, and this cast work incredibly hard to pull everything together. From the leads who step away from their television personas, and delve headlong into the fun, to a supporting cast of panto babes who multi-task like nobody’s business – this is a team effort which gives the production its backbone.
Everything from the pacing of the narrative, to character development, has been curtailed in order to appeal to the children in the audience. This abridged story of Dick Whittington ironically becomes harder to follow as the audience try to keep up as the narrative flies from one scene to the next. As the story isn’t given room to breathe, the characters become less defined – Dick Whittington should be at the centre of the narrative, but here he becomes a subplot. A role admirably covered by Alex Hetherington, stepping in for John Lumsden, Whittington is not a man in charge of his own destiny.
Traditions must evolve, but this production highlights the issues in trying to change too much, too fast. What tonight’s performance showed is that there is still a place for classic, corny pantomime – the ad-libs and the gaffes from Ellacott and Ford held the audience’s attention, regardless of their age. What a pantomime needs is personality, not perfection.
Runs until Saturday 12 January 2019 | Image: Contributed