Review: Dick Whittington – Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds

It’s not over until the fat lady sings, or in this case a man, dressed as a lady, dressed as a cooking range – it can only be one thing, panto time and far from heralding the end, Dick Whittington proves to be deliciously devilish start to the festive season.

Young Richard Whittington has heard the legend of streets paved with gold in London and so sets out to find his fortune. He soon discovers, though, that instead of gold the streets are overrun with vermin, led by Queen Rat, in a plot worthy of a Bond movie, intent on spreading the plague as a method to wipe out the human race and see stinky subjects take over the world.

Fortunately, Dick’s cat, Tommy, has a taste for dismembering rats and so soon becomes public enemy number one for the evil Queen. Can Dick save London, get his girl and claim his fortune?

The script offers a remarkably strong central plot for a panto – yes, all the must-have elements are there, the slapstick, the audience participation, and the obligatory sing-along but, underneath all, the tomfoolery there is a simple boy meets girl (and cat) story that adds a sense of realism in all the clowning.

That’s not to say that its’ not all very silly and great fun and the gags and routines will have audiences of all ages laughing and groaning in equal measure. There are enough double-entendres around young Richard’s name to make the adults blush and enough visual humour to keep the younger, more innocent, members of the audience amused.

Colin Blumenau directs his own script (under his pen-name Daniel O’Brien) with pace and flair, allowing room for the absurdity but never letting it get totally out of control. There are moments when the pace slips slightly but that is easily remedied during the run. Will Hargreaves’ simple but effective set allows swift transformations between scenes, while Sarina Hosking has great fun with some impressive costume designs.

The company demonstrates once again that you don’t need to rely on TV soap stars to stage an effective panto and the small cast works well together and is obviously having great fun with the material.

Gareth Bennett-Ryan as the affable Dick charms and Hannah Blake makes an assured professional debut as love interest Alice. Lizzie Franks gives an impressive physicality to feline Tommy, while Victoria Butler gives her Fairy Bowbells (one of three parts she plays) a nicely dark sardonic air.

Corinna Powlesland’s vile vermin Queen Rat is delightfully dark, managing to turn the normally saccharine-sweet My Favourite Things from The Sound Of Music into a comical rodent recruiting regime.

No panto is complete without its Dame and here we are offered Sarah The Cook, an opera singing diva resigned to having to whip up culinary creations for Alderman Fitzwarren. Just as likely to burst into an aria from Carmen as to provide lunch, Stephen Weller not only gives this Diva a roof rattling operatic voice but also makes ‘her’ a believable woman in a series of show-stealing frocks. Think Maria Callas meets Lady GaGa and you get the idea.

There are some nice musical touches from musical director Grant Martin, a suite of operatic numbers, comedy songs and even a feline nod to Lloyd Webber’s Cats.

Dick Whittington is a return to the more gentle art of panto, relying on performance and script to provide the belly laughs rather than the all-out stupidity that some festive offering rely on. It may be highly traditional but it’s still full of topical references. With an opera singing diva dame and tap dancing rats spoofing The Sound of Music what’s not to like?

Review originally written for The Public Reviews

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