Half way through the first half of this very enjoyable take on the Dick Whittington story, the ultimate pantomime villain appears, stage right.
It doesn’t take much in wardrobe to recreate our Prime Minister. Pull a mop head from its stick and place it casually on the head of a passing actor and you’re good to go. The resulting boos are both ubiquitous, delightful and welcome.
Pantomime is such a quintessentially English tradition. Sanctioned only within the Christmas period that is already silly season (fueled on office parties and your nan’s Baileys), it is almost impossible to define and describe it for, say, an American friend. (Oh no it isn’t… oh yes it is etc. etc.). Daft frocks, cross dressing, familiar and awful jokes and audience participation, the Panto is one-part timeless tradition and one-part contemporary topicality… with a healthy glug of cooking Sherry. So yes, while we are ostensibly in the 15th Century, after the year we’ve all had we also willingly suspend disbelief (in fact, all disbelief is handed in willingly at the cloakroom) and accept that we are in a world where the Prime Minister might appear. Otherwise… we wouldn’t get the chance to boo him. So in-jokes about his parties, and indeed a doomed ship named the Corona, share stage time with old favourites about bodily functions, bad cooking, and parts of the anatomy that might share a name with the shortened version of ‘Richard’.
We possibly know the story of Dick Whittington, the impoverished everyman who travels from – in this case, Wythenshawe – to seek his fortune in the capital, where the streets are paved with gold. (Now I was in London the weekend before the show, and I can confirm for all my Mancunian and Salfordian friends that it mostly certainly is not). That is the last thing you are likely to errantly tred in. But back to the plot. In London, Dick finds not his fortune… but love (something also difficult to negotiate in the capital without Tinder). So much for the tradition, however this performance also gives it something of a modern twist, with a talking, breakdancing cat (and no… simmer down at the back… cooking Sherry was not consumed by this reviewer before the performance) and modern songs to funk it up some Indeed, Bruno Mars’ ‘Uptown Funk’ was a notable highlight.
In terms of the production, the scenery was understandably basic, although gave enough of the cartoon aesthetic to place us firmly in this wonky world, which moved from countryside to city to bakery to ship to underwater realm (yep, the Corona is indeed doomed to perish which, I imagine, we all wish it would). The production made good use of projections and, for a fairly intimate theatre and production, the music was live, from a band, who supplied occasional sound effects up to live versions of rave tunes that had this old raver’s foot tapping.
The cast is solid enough, although the nature of Panto means that even fluffed lines become points of improvised hilarity. Certainly Dick himself, played by Marquelle Ward, gives a solid and expressive professional performance, befitting someone who has trodden the Corrie cobbles as well as the stage. There was also hints of Mighty Boosh to one or two performances, with Adam Urey’s King Rat (the villain, along with Boris) coming across a little like the Noel Fielding character The Hitcher and Scratch the Cat, played by Anton Phung also sounding like the more laconic of Boosh characters. Urey’s portrayal of the villain must have been on the money because his first appearance was met with one child, suitably spooked, bursting out into floods of tears. However special note must be given to the dancers, through to older more professional ones right down to little kids, whose wonderful energy almost stole the show.
Very early in the cycle for Pantos, the venue was perhaps two-thirds full, predominantly, of course, of families. But the energy between audience and cast – so crucial for Panto – was certainly tangible, although the cast really need to do some work on their throwing technique, with a pack of crisps barely making it off the stage. Most families had children younger than mine, perhaps under 10, whereas my two are 11 and 13. I encouraged my own kids to engage, to make some noise but, to be honest, I was just glad at the opportunity to get out, and get them away from screens.
So the final verdict, really, needs to go to my kids, as target audience, rather than me, as world weary parent. So I asked them both for their reviews after the performance and…. they both loved it. So let’s bade farewell to the good ship Corona and hope… just hope… that after the year we’ve had, we can all join in with a rowdy, rousing final chorus of “It’s behind you!”