Extravaganza Productions return to the Stockport Plaza with a production of Dick Whittington that marries traditional bawdy humour and bauble glitz.
After last year’s intense disappointment of cancelled performances and the painful hit to theatre coffers across the country, the return of panto this season is exceedingly welcome.
Dick Whittington is a traditional English pantomime that dramatises the true story of Richard Whittington, three times Mayor of London during the 14th century. Contrary to the play’s pauper Dick, Richard’s life was an easier entry into London society via the cloth trade. The fabled cat is a later 16th century narrative flourish however, what is Dick Whittington without his feline friend? London, and later Morocco, is beset by rodents and it is Tommy the cat’s initiative that saves the day – and Dick’s burgeoning relationship with the Alderman’s daughter, Alice. That, in a nutshell, is the story and everything else is glittering panto frou.
This production of Dick Whittington welcomes back Extravaganza regulars Bradley Thompson as Idle Jack, Becky Bennett as Alice – the damsel to woo, Tyler Sargant’s Dick and Richard Aucott as Dame Sarah Suet. Brian Capron, Coronation Street’s Richard Hillman, revels in his perchance for villainy as King Rat. Maddison Kimber’s portrayal as Tommy the Cat – the true hero – is lithe, fluid and witty. Playing alongside Tristan Carter, Robert Laughlin, Katie Paine and Daniel Rowding, they form a solid cast. I asked my children who their favourite was and both agreed it was, hands down, Tommy.
The narrative of Dick’s rise, fall and rise again is intercut with back and forth between excellent panto dame, Sarah Suet and her foolish foil, Idle Jack. Some sequences particularly hit home to elicit riotous laughs and snorts at the triply layered double entendres. This was my husband’s first pantomime experience and sideways glances revealed creased laughter lines in response to the stream of low-grade jokes. There truly is mileage to the phrase ‘keep it simple’ when it comes to good old panto.
But pantomime is less for adults. It may offer escapism after a rough week (or 18 months of pandemic) but the focus should always be on children, and traditional participation is key. The production deploys the expected; repeated audience gales of “hello gorgeous” as Sarah Suet enters the stage in increasingly elaborate (and fabulous) costume changes, percussion exaggerated athletic comedic skits and the inevitable “he’s behind you” during the rat/hero dance off to a version of ‘Drunken Sailor’. These devices ensured my children leant forward, arms on seats, completely enraptured by the high jinks and drama.
If there was a weakness, it was the Morocco sequence. The stylised music, gestures, dancing and jibes veered into uncomfortable stereotypes that are best revised for an audience that understands a more contemporary context. Pantomime may be theatre tradition but it sits within a wider culture that never stands still.
Musically, the production borrows from across stage and popular music. It opens to a painted scene of Cheapside’s wooden shambles with Oliver’s ‘Who Will Buy’. This is beautifully performed by the Extravaganza Dancers to the imaginative and slick choreography of James and Sarah Robinson. Other numbers include Capron’s exuberantly evil King Rat’s snarling of ‘Ace of Spades’ and an audience dance off to the mash up of Reel 2 Reel’s ‘I Like To Move It’. The live band, under the skilful direction of Andrew Saunders, never misses a beat and the cast’s singing is consistently excellent throughout.
Dick Whittington is a joyful and festive return of panto to the stage.
Dick Whittington is at The Plaza, Stockport from 3 December 2021 to January 2022.