Matt Magill is thoroughly spooked by the nerve-shredding play based on Susan Hill's dark novelWritten by Matthew Magill on 26th May 2017
Review: ‘Dick Whittington’ at the Birmingham Hippodrome
Culture Editor Olivia Boyce reviews Dick Whittington at the Birmingham Hippodrome, a fabulous pantomime with laughs a plenty
Birmingham is and has always seemed lucky enough to play host to a wealth of touring productions, home-grown classics, and spectacular variety of cultural offerings, particularly around the holiday seasons. However, few shows are quite as anticipated an event on the city’s theatrical calendar as the Hippodrome’s current fare – a pantomime, a staple of the holiday season in Britain, yet relatively unknown beyond the UK. Attracting star-packed casts and huge audiences, with a record-breaking 119,000 seeing their 2015 production of Aladdin, it is clear that these are high expectations indeed – and Dick Whittington, this year’s offering, doesn’t so much raise expectations as it does smash them in gloriously brilliant style.
“The cast is a tour de force collective of stage and screen legends from across the decades
Avoiding the caveat that comes with staging a perhaps lesser known or defined pantomime like Whittington, the tale that unfolds is packed with a clever mixture of superb dance numbers, almost vignette or tableau comic scenes that use well the various talents of the cast, and the occasional bit of plot thrown in to bring it all together. The premise is a familiar one - Whittington goes to London to find his fortune, and along the way finds he is the hero needed to free the city, and his new friends, from the terrors of King Rat and his rodent minions.
The cast is a tour de force collective of stage and screen legends from across the decades, boasting familiar faces to audience members of all ages. The titular Dick (Whittington!), the hero tasked with defeating a villain in his quest to become Lord Mayor of London, is here played by John Barrowman. Famous for a range of stage and screen roles, though perhaps best known for playing Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who and Torchwood, Barrowman is stellarly cast here, giving us a handsome Whittington full of innuendo and sharp wit, accompanied by the fabulous vocal chops that have seen him cast in many a musical. Reveling in the rather smutty comedic gift that is his character’s name, his Whittington often becomes wonderfully self-aware, flirtatious with more than just Whittington’s beau Alice, bringing something brilliant to the tried and tested character formula. All in all, Barrowman’s a rather wonderful Dick.
“John Barrowman gives us a handsome Whittington full of innuendo and sharp wit
Jodie Prenger, whose stage career has gone from strength to strength after winning I’d Do Anything, the Andrew Lloyd Webber helmed TV search for an actress to play Nancy in Oliver, is here cast as Fairy Bow Bells, a role in which she captures a playful spirit and pairs it with some great vocals, a duet with Barrowman being a highlight of the whole show. Danielle Hope, whose career also began with a Lloyd Webber show looking this time for Dorothy, is cast as Alice, who quickly falls for Whittington. Like Prenger, Hope brings charm and vocal flair to the role, though at times both feel a little underused, more so Hope, the only unfortunate side effect of having such a large and talented cast, with only a few hours in which to best use them.
The Krankies are, as always, on comedic form. Those familiar with their work will find several call-backs to their earlier career, and their patter with Barrowman is what makes a great many of the scenes move from enjoyable to outrageous. Barrowman remarked at the launch of the pantomime that there was a certain ‘something that happens’ when the trio are on stage together, and this is most certainly the case. They get many of the (perhaps surprisingly frequent) more “adult” jokes, with some leaving parents guffawing in faux shock whilst their kids laugh obliviously along, though this seeks only to include every audience member, rather than exclude the younger ones. Their quite frequent breaking character, adlibbing and self-referential puns are joyous, and Janette in particular is on cracking form. Her improv is so quick that she sometimes stuns her fellow actors into peals of disbelieving laughter, and her lyrically-altered rendition of a Madonna classic is a moment of unexpected brilliance.
However, star of the show from the moment he appears on stage is Matt Slack. Slack is now a fixture of the Brum panto scene having starred in several past Hippodrome productions, and indeed he is greeted with such rapturous applause when he first treads the boards that he cheekily turns to check that nobody else has come on stage to elicit such a response. He’s ‘Idle Jack… in this one!’, and almost every scene he is in he steals, a veritable whirlwind of easy patter, a bevy of jokes and one liners, and the saviour of many of the little mishaps that inevitably happen in panto. Slack’s comedic talent is a gift, rivalling many great comedians of this or any time, and it is little wonder he has already been confirmed for next year’s panto – he is simply astounding. It is clear that his contribution to the production goes beyond his own lines, with little touches of his comedic routines evident throughout, and it is in little doubt that the panto is all the better for him.
“Slack’s comedic talent is a gift, rivalling many great comedians of this or any time
Also remarkable is the ambition on display in the range and ingenuity of the special effects and design. Costuming is excellent throughout, and the sheer number of costumes worn by Andrew Ryan’s Sarah the Cook is staggering. The 3D sequence that the Qdos pantomimes have gained acclaim for have returned once more, this time offering a surprisingly dark underwater sequence that is brilliantly utilised, and there is even a rather terrifying giant rat contraption that emerges from the darkness, red eyes gleaming as it looms over the audience eerily, somewhat oddly evocative of the Martian’s fighting machines in War of the Worlds. It is just one of several clever usages of mechanics, with a flight sequence that closes the first act that, without spoiling the magic of the moment, is pretty fantastic, and very festive too.
It is one of a great many unexpected moments like this, in a pantomime where the unexpected seems to happen almost constantly. Qdos have excelled themselves once again, putting on nothing short of a delightful spectacle. Pantomimes are not really supposed to be subtle, perhaps more charming than sincere, and Dick Whittington does it all fabulously – comedic genius, a veritable palette of musical delights, special effects and stellar cast, all tied together in a gift of a pantomime. For a festive treat, it really does seem that there is little better than this practically perfect production.
“Dick Whittington does it all fabulously – comedic genius, a veritable palette of musical delights, special effects and stellar cast, all tied together in a gift of a pantomime
Dick Whittington runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome from 19th December 2016 to the 29th of January 2017.