Review: Dick Whittington at the Marlowe Theatre

You wait all year for a pantomime, and then two come along at once. Following Monday’s hilarious outing to Theatre503 for Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, my pantomime expectations were set sky-high. So did the Marlowe’s Dick Whittington, my second panto in two days, hit the mark? Oh yes it did…

Although a far more traditional pantomime than the night before, there’s so much to love in Paul Hendy’s production that it never once feels tired, despite the presence of all the usual tried and tested panto conventions. The gags – which include the usual local digs and up-to-the-minute topical references – are genuinely funny (even the ones you can see coming a mile off) and while there’s certainly no shortage of innuendo, it’s refreshing to note that Hendy’s avoided the temptation to go after the obvious Dick jokes. And there’s also a 21st century twist to keep us on our toes: a 3D section takes us into a dreamy underwater world that soon becomes more of a nightmare, sending the already impressive decibel level clean through the roof.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

The big name in this year’s Canterbury panto is TV presenter and magician Stephen Mulhern, who charms us with his scene-stealing tricks and infectious giggle. But he’s far from the only star on the stage: West End performer John Barr is a very stagey King Rat (very confusing for a musical theatre fan; half the time I couldn’t decide whether to boo or applaud, and usually ended up doing both). Gymnast Vladimir Georgievsky brings the house down with a jaw-dropping and entirely unexpected (unless you watch Britain’s Got Talent) trampolining display in Act 2. And Marlowe regulars Ben Roddy and Lloyd Hollett, appearing together for the sixth year in a row, are a dream comedy duo as Dolly The Cook and Captain Crabstick; clearly having just as much fun as the audience, they really are a joy to watch.

There are moments when you could even forget you’re watching a pantomime altogether, so polished is the production. There are some spectacular group numbers – not least the Act 2 opener, Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat from Guys and Dolls, and later a slightly tenuous but still hugely enjoyable celebration of everything that makes Great Britain great. And in a nice moment Chris Wong, the obviously hugely respected musical director of 22 years, joins the show’s romantic leads, Ben Carruthers’ Dick and Jemma Carlisle’s Alice, on stage with an acoustic guitar for the inevitable cheesy love duet.

Photo credit: Paul Clapp
Photo credit: Paul Clapp

I haven’t been to the Canterbury panto for a long time, but if every year is as good as this one, I’ll definitely be back. Dick Whittington remains true to the pantomime spirit and format, so nobody who turned up particularly wanting to watch an assortment of odd characters sit on a bench and sing Ghostbusters goes home disappointed. But while it’s as predictable and cheesy as you might expect, the show never compromises on production quality, and proves a hugely enjoyable evening for audience members of all ages.

Dick Whittington is at the Marlowe Theatre until 8th January.

Review: Dick Whittington at the Orchard Theatre

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?

Malcolm Lord
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

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.

Shane Richie
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

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.

Pete Gallagher
Photo credit: Craig Sugden

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.