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A CurtainUp London London Review
Dick Whittington

My American dress. One Yank and it's off!
---- Sarah the Cook
Dick Whittington
Roger Lloyd Pack as Sarah the Cook
(Photo: Manuel Harlan)
Now British playwright Mark Ravenhill is not the author who springs to mind when looking for a scriptwriter of the peculiarly British winter family entertainment, the staged pantomime. With credits like Shopping and F*ing and Mother Clap's Molly House one of my naughtier colleagues suggested that Ravenhill might put the "dick" into Dick Whittington.

The Barbican Theatre which commends some of the arts investment of the mega-rich Corporation of London, the square mile of the proper City of London, has invested in its own pantomime for the first time. And what better pantomime to choose than the one based on London where legend tells us that after an impoverished start to life in Gloucestershire, Dick Whittington became Lord Mayor of London, not once but three times thanks to the intervention of a cat.

In traditional terms there is much to commend Ravenhill's pantomime. The elements are all there including the increasing rare Principal Boy, the young romantic "male" lead who is played by a tall girl with a jerkin, tights and thigh high boots (Summer Strallen). Too often nowadays a male heart throb and soap star will take this role. We have a Pantomime Dame a woman of a certain age played by a man (Roger Lloyd Pack), a heartless villain, the King Rat (Nikolas Grace) to be booed and hissed at, a plump flying fairy on wires (Debbie Chazen), a boy Totally Lazy Jack (Danny Worters) who keeps falling asleep, and Dick's famous cat (Derek Elroy).

The performances are wonderful. Roger Lloyd Pack's range impressed me, I last saw him playing a stroke victim movingly in a television play. Sam Kelly is a charming comedic Alderman Fitzwarren and Caroline Sheen as his daughter Alice has blonde curls down to her sweet waist. Summer Stollen is upright and appealing as thigh slapping Dick and Derek Elroy grooms his fur and dispatches the rat population. Today we could do with another rat catcher, we are told that nowhere in London is more than twenty feet away from a rat.

The children in the audience were so involved with the action, the suspension of disbelief for them was total as they called words of encouragement to Dick Whittington and exposed or disparaged the villains. There is the traditional scene where people are picked off by a ghost and the children warn the about-to-be victim with cries of "Behind You!"

For adults Ravenhill promised us something also to entertain, although for most parents, the joy of the children is reward enough. The adult entertainment takes the form of sexual double entendre from the Dame which I pray the children will accord a more innocent interpretation.

The Barbican's Dick Whittington is obviously a very expensive production. The traditionally painted backdrops, once of oil cloth, look like something from the brush of Clarice Cliff, the smoke during the rat scenes seems to smell of real sulphur, the rat heads of the children's chorus are design masterpieces and the costumes are splendid. There is an underwater scene with neon puppet jellyfish, a real boat and a scene in a pasha's harem. The Dame's clothes are delightfully extravagant, a reminder of the fine silks and fabrics the original Sir Richard Whittington traded in as a mercer in the fourteenth century. I liked the epilogue when Roger Lloyd Pack told the audience about the real Dick Whittington and the historical notes in the programme are interesting about the charitable works of the Richard Whittington who really did marry a Alice Fitzwarren (Caroline Sheen).

With Edward Hall directing (and in the audience on opening night with a party of children, including his own, singing along to Kit Hesketh-Harvey's "Barbicancancan") this is a night out for children. You will have sweets thrown at you, be sprayed with water pistols and at the end of the evening a few hand picked children in the audience are invited onto the stage for a starring role. But for the adults I sadly feel that everyone was trying too hard. It is the difference between truly magical moments like lighting a simple sparkler and waving a battery operated flashy LED wand around in the darkness.

Written by Mark Ravenhill
Songs by Jim Bob, Anthony Drewe, Antony Dunn, Justin Edwards, Howard Goodall, Charles Hart, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Dillie Keane, Issy van Randwyck, Mark Ravenhill, George Stiles, Sarah Travis
Directed by Edward Hall

Starring: Roger Lloyd Pack, Sam Kelly
With: Debbie Chazen, Nikolas Grace, Toby Sedgwick, Miles Jupp, Danny Worters, Caroline Sheen, Summer Strallen, Derek Elroy, Mel Slaky, Shaun Henson, Chloe Campbell, Robin Colyer, Christopher Hawes, Zoe-Leone Gappy, Natasha Lewis, Sean Parkins, Joanne Sandi.
Design: Michael Howells
Choreography: Emma Tunmore
Musical direction and musical arrangements: Sarah Travis
Movement Director: Toby Sedgwick
Lighting: Ben Ormerod
Sound: Matt McKenzie
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 020 7637 8891
Booking to 20th January 2007
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th December 2006 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2 (Tube: Barbican)
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