Reviewed by Tom Roberts
Lichfield Garrick’s fine tradition of high quality Christmas entertainment shows no sign of fading with their latest festive offering that sees its partnership with Evolution Pantomimes enter its third year.
The story of Richard (‘Dick‘) Whittington’s impressive rise to prominence as the Lord Mayor of London is one of the few panto’s that is actually based on a true story . It’s very loosely based, it has be said, and even that is an understatement. It’s doubtful whether he encountered an undersea 3D adventure or, indeed, a bloke from Sutton Coldfield dressed in a variety of increasingly garish frocks, but he did exist and his story continues to provide fodder for one of our most enduring and best loved Christmas shows.
Part of the reason this version works is it’s writing. Whilst the children in the audience, it’s key target, are treated to a continuous feast of physical comedy and nicely pitched gags, there are also jokes aimed at fairly and squarely at the adult section. It’s all about getting the balance right and that is certainly achieved here both in it’s writing and execution.
By it’s nature, Pantomime is formulaic. There are certain important and expected ingredients that, give or take some shuffling to suit the story, remain constant throughout. Panto would be nothing without it’s role call of usual suspects; the fairy to tell the story, the baddie to bring on the boo’s, the handsome price to woo the doe eyed fittie, the fashion defying dame to assault the senses and the lovable cheeky chappie comedian to make us all chuckle. In a sense, the title doesn’t really matter. These people find their way into just about every offering. Its just the frocks and the names that change.
Dames, as Olivier once observed, are tough to get right and should be classed up there with ‘Hamlet‘ when it comes to acting challenges. Sam Rabone, as Dolly The Cook, gives a warm and intensely likeable performance that favours the Les Dawson ‘bloke in a frock‘ approach over the tottering drag queen option that offers more feathers than substance. Rabone makes no attempt to ‘camp up’ the voice either - staying loyal to his belting brummie tones and all the better for it.
Ben Thornton is engaging as the stock lovable, comedy character - in this case ‘Billy’. His timing and delivery of both tried and tested and new materiel are spot on. Far be it from me to spoil any punchlines, but the joke involving sugar that isn’t white made me seriously guffaw. His double act chemistry with Rabone is also a joy to watch, particularly in physical routines like the slosh scene onboard the ship and the tongue twisting verbal jousts that require one’s teeth to be very much in.
Ashley Emerson is what you might expect from a dashing young hero, providing decent eye candy for the mums and delivering songs with real charm. He gets the girl, no plot spoiler there, but not before she makes it clear that she is very much her own woman and will never be dictated to by any man. Blimey. Even Panto is ticking the equality boxes these days. Becky Lane gives this modern day Alice Fitzwarren some lovely and demonstrates a fine set of pipes along the way.
Children’s TV favourite, Katrina Bryan, gives good fairy, delivering her rhyming couplets with almost impossible niceness whilst dangling above people’s heads. No small feat in a small venue but accomplished with grace and some dexterity.
There has to be, of course, a baddie to counter all the rose coloured loveliness. Cue Queen Rat played with delicious and snarling attack by Joanne Heywood. In a cross between The Wicked Witch of The East and Cruella De Ville (with a bit of Kinky Boots thrown in) this is vermin of the highest order that you most certainly would not want to mess with.
Lucy Parry is a slinky and sweet Tommy the Cat. Or is it Gertrude? Who really cares? Why let the truth get in the way of a good gag?
There is strong support too from Ieuan Rhys as kindly Alderman Fitzwarren and Nicholais Kerry as the somewhat flexible Sultan.
A strong ensemble is simply but tightly choreographed by Simon Barnum and full credit to the children who flex not only dancing and singing muscles but are also given comedy lines to deliver.
Sam Rabone somehow finds the time to direct as well as perform. No easy task but he covers both disciplines equally well.
Helga Wood’s set design is nicely textured and suitably traditional - matched perfectly by costume choice.
Strong musical arrangement, too, from M.D. Dave Culling matched by Martin Pritchard’s strong sound design.
Generally, the show sets a cracking pace, never allowing the energy to drop. Attention spans, sadly, are not what they used to be and credit again to the writing and delivery for keeping it all moving forward. In a universally solid show, there are some stand out moments including the topsy turvy slosh scene and the ingenious underwater 3D effect. Less impressive was the unsubtle marketing plug that invited the audience to share their photos on social media. It may be the world we live in now, but it seemed an un necessary interruption to a flowing story.
If you want state of the art pyrotechnics and technical wizardry, you may be better off heading to the bigger, city venues but if you are looking for a laugh out loud evening with real heart , this is the one for you . It works because it gets it right. Kids are enthralled and adults are included ….it doesn’t really get much better than that.
If you have children, take them. If you haven’t, borrow some. You’ll be glad you did.
For the full review, click here.