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: Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves at Theatre503

I’ll be honest; I wasn’t really feeling the Christmas love when I arrived at Theatre503 last night; even being handed a glass of mulled wine and a mince pie didn’t quite do the job. Lucky then that the Sleeping Trees were more than up to the challenge of unearthing my festive spirit.

In this year’s pantomime, Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves, the comedy trio made up of Joshua George Smith, John Woodburn and James Dunnell-Smith, are determined to make good on last year’s fiasco, when they forgot to book their 30-strong cast of actors. Surely something that disastrous couldn’t possibly happen again…?

You see where this is going.

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Over the course of the next two hours, this hilarious tale brings to life a mash-up of Dickens and Disney, with Santa thrown in for good measure. Unlikely hero Ebenezer Scrooge is transported to Fairytale Land by Santa’s mother, charged with saving the day after the Wicked Witch steals all the Christmas spirit. I could tell you more – but I don’t want to ruin it, because it’s the twists and turns that make this story so fabulous; you literally never know (and it often feels entirely possible that the actors don’t either) what’s going to happen or who’s going to appear next.

I also fear I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the unique genius of Sleeping Trees’ creations, which include a depressed Mary Poppins, a gurning Wicked Witch and an overenthusiastic Broomstick, accompanied from a corner by composer and musician Ben Hales, who besides being a brilliant and versatile performer, also carries off a series of ridiculous hats (and an even more ridiculous Act 2 costume) with effortless style.

Scrooge is a family show, and although the audience last night was largely composed of grown-ups (in age, at least), I can imagine children adoring it – not least because they get to throw stuff, sing songs and join in with all the usual pantomime madness. In the intimate space at Theatre503, the banter flows easily and naturally between audience and actors, with the front row being particularly hot seats in that department…

Though the attention to detail and comic timing are second to none, like all the funniest comedy it’s not always clear what’s planned and what just sort of happens in the moment. The actors, who are clearly having a blast, seem frequently as amused as the audience, but also have the quick instincts of true comedians, enabling them to respond to whatever mayhem goes on (last night’s show, for instance, featured an incident which, if it was in fact unplanned, was the best example of falling with style I’ve ever seen).

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
This is my first pantomime of the season, and while the others may enjoy bigger budgets and household names, they already have a huge standard to live up to. Face-achingly funny, with an imaginative and endearing story and songs that are far too catchy (24 hours later, I’m still singing the closing number), this is an absolute must-see that I shall be recommending repeatedly to anyone who’ll listen for the rest of the holiday season. Merry Christmas…

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

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.

Review: Twelfth Night at Castle Cornet

Last summer, I was in Guernsey visiting a friend, and she took me along to an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the appropriately magical setting of the historic Castle Cornet. The theatre company, Oddsocks, were new to me, but two things soon became clear – they’re brilliant, and they’re completely bonkers. Fortunately, when it comes to theatre, this is my favourite combination.

So when I arranged to visit Guernsey again last weekend, and my friend told me Oddsocks were back, I jumped at the chance to see what they’d made of Twelfth Night. I was fairly confident that the play’s love triangles, gender bending, mischievous pranks and general air of confusion would offer plenty of opportunities for mayhem – and I wasn’t disappointed. Despite the weather, which was dismal to say the least, a great night was had by all; Oddsocks productions go on come rain or shine, and it’s a testament to how enjoyable they are that nobody got up and left when the heavens opened in act 2.

Photo credit: Oddsocks

Once again, the company’s take on the Bard’s work is fresh, unique and very, very funny. I never would have thought that I’d see two Shakespearean characters singing Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble… but now I can cross that particular goal off my bucket list. Because this is the Britpop musical version of Twelfth Night, and if you think that sounds mad – well, it is. But that doesn’t mean it’s not all kinds of amazing. Fans who enjoy conventional Shakespeare may object to Duke Orsino’s ‘if music be the food of love’ speech being replaced by Roxy Music; then again, those people are unlikely to be found at an Oddsocks play – or at least, not for long. (But do be prepared for the cast to heckle you on the way out.)

Led by director, and born showman, Andy Barrow, the cast basically just get up on stage and have a good time, dealing with whatever happens to come their way, whether or not it’s in the script. I particularly enjoyed the drunken antics of Sirs Toby Belch and Andrew Aguecheek (Kevin Kemp and Gavin Harrison), who spend much of their time giggling and falling over, and at one point wander into the audience in search of booze. And I may never be able to forget Malvolio (Andy Barrow) and his yellow stockings – for all the wrong reasons.

It’s all so chaotic that at times it’s hard to tell what’s planned, and what’s been made up on the spot (although I’m pretty sure the pause to fix their dangerously sagging roof with a mop was a one-off). In fact, the whole production plays pretty fast and loose with Shakespeare’s original text, but given that the audience are all having such a great time, I’m going to bet he’d be willing to forgive that.

Photo credit: Oddsocks

If I had to sum up an Oddsocks production, I’d probably describe it as ‘Shakespeare does panto’. You’ve got music, slapstick, audience participation (where else can you get up on stage and throw wet sponges at one of the actors?), a few pointed references to current affairs, and even a girl dressed as a boy. The only difference, really, is it’s way better than any panto I’ve ever been to.

Unfortunately the Oddsocks tours don’t tend to take in Kent or London, but they do seem to have become something of a fixture in Guernsey. So I guess I’ll be forced to head back that way next summer and do it all over again… It’s a tough old life.