It’s Christmas time… and in the land of theatre, that means only one thing: panto season!
Dartford’s pantomime for this year is Dick Whittington, starring Eastenders favourite Shane Richie. On my way to The Orchard to watch the show, I realised I didn’t actually know this particular story… and I can’t honestly say I know it that well now either. But that’s not really the point of panto, as we all know. So here’s the gist – Dick Whittington and his cat save London from giant rats. Hurrah!
Now, let’s be honest. We all know what to expect from a pantomime. It’s a bizarre and extremely British tradition that’s pretty much impossible to explain to anyone who’s never experienced it (believe me, I have tried). But the good news is, once you’ve seen one panto, you’ve basically seen them all. You know there’ll be a TV star playing the hero; a man dressed in drag; a baddie who everyone boos at; lots of singing and dancing; a bit where all the main characters get scared off, one by one, by some kind of monster… It’s a time-honoured formula, and as long as we all keep laughing and shouting the right responses, why would anyone mess with it?
Dick Whittington has all of the above in buckets (and yes, at one point there are actual buckets), but it also brings a few fresh ideas to the stage. The appearance of a giant kraken is impressive and unexpected – and it’s great fun to see how the children in the audience respond to it; two little boys in front of us clearly thought giving a huge sea monster the thumbs down was the right way to go. And I genuinely enjoyed the 3D section in the second half – which is saying something, because 3D doesn’t usually do it for me at all – even if it did mean the already astonishing noise levels went up yet another notch.
Whether you’re an Eastenders fan or not, Shane Richie’s a fantastic lead, who absolutely makes the show. He’s also a natural comedian; it’s often hard to tell which bits of the chaos are scripted and which are just him making it up on the spot. He’s joined by Pete Gallagher as the evil King Rat, and Malcolm Lord, who goes through countless outrageous costumes – sometimes several at the same time – as this year’s dame. (For those of us old enough to remember, Malcolm Lord played George the pink hippo in Rainbow. I used to love that show.) Illusionist Phil Hitchcock keeps the audience entertained with some jaw-dropping tricks, and Aaron Romano makes a late but very welcome appearance as a scantily clad Sultan Vinegar.
The humour, as usual, is very much two-level; there’s plenty of slapstick and silliness for the kids, but also more than enough to keep the grownups entertained. The local gags are fun, but could be more varied; after the fourth joke about Temple Hill, it’s starting to get a bit old for anyone who doesn’t live there. And though the show often sails dangerously close to the wind – which, let’s face it, was inevitable in a story where the main character’s called Dick – it always manages to just about toe the line of what’s appropriate.
There are a couple of bits that could be slightly scary for younger audience members, although having said that, none of them seemed particularly phased, and the baby directly in front of us was totally chilled out throughout the show – so maybe I’m just being a wuss.
I’ve been to my fair share of pantomimes over the years, and I have to say Dick Whittington is one of the best. The cast all look like they’re having a great time, and it’s a genuinely enjoyable show, with plenty of fun surprises. Of course it’s also totally predictable and a complete cheese-fest… but then that’s why we love panto. Right?
Dick Whittington is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Sunday 3rd January.