Writers: Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd
Director: Ned Bennett
It’s a big jump from the London of 15th/16th Century Mayor Richard Whittington to that of Sadiq Khan, but the most distinctive features of the National Theatre’s Christmas show are its attempts to bridge the gap. The Whittington story has been embellished and distorted massively over the centuries and has long been the basis for one of our best loved traditional pantomimes, but writers Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd stretch the story even further and pack their script with contemporary references.
Pantomime is a curious form of British theatre, difficult to explain, but Christian and Lloyd abide by the key rule, which is that there are no rules. Some traditions are retained and others are jettisoned. Happily, there is a dame (Dickie Beau) and a panto horse, albeit one that is socially distanced front from rear, but, of necessity, there are none of the tacky, brightly painted sets that can conjure up such magic for kids. Performed in the round in the Olivier Theatre, the show has more of the feel of a circus than that of a traditional pantomime and the important ingredient of audience participation is rendered almost impossible by current constraints.
Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings’ Dick is a bright-eyed, naive and gullible young lad who has travelled through “at least three tiers” to arrive in London from Leeds, only to find that the streets are not paved with gold. His qualities are not exactly those expected of a political leader, but, nonetheless, he quickly becomes a candidate in the mayoral election, triggered by the departure of Mayor Pigeon (Laura Checkley) to compete on Strictly Come Dancing. Dick’s opponent is the evil and very flatulent Queen Rat (Amy Booth-Steel), whose idea of fun would be to “kick away Captain Tom’s zimmer frame”. She cheats, connives and greets her inevitable fate with all the humility and good grace of Donald Trump.
Dick is helped on his way by the yellow, streetwise cat Tom (Cleve September), his landlady Sarah Fitzwarren (Beau) and her daughter Alice (Georgina Onuorah). Bow Belles (Melanie La Barrie) is a sort of fairy godmother figure who presides over events and belts out her songs. Generally, the singing is excellent, doing justice to a range of contemporary hits which slot in neatly, although The Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York is, technically, a few thousand miles out of place. Georgia Lowe’s outrageous costumes spice up Ned Bennett’s bouncy, fluent production.
Modern pantomimes can be family friendly or definitely not family friendly or somewhere in between. This one strikes a reasonable balance; this reviewer counted few more than a dozen variations of “Dick” gags, which, hopefully, will go over the heads of the kids, along with Sarah’s saucy asides. Much sharper are the jokes alluding to current events, including those which cruelly cut short the show’s planned live run. Inevitably, a pantomime will lose a great deal when seen on film, but what remains demonstrates that this is a show full of energy, wit and real heart.
Available here until 27 December 2020