As part of an arts scene audience starved of live interaction for just short of two years, it was almost pleasant to be in a chilly queue waiting for Covid protocols to be observed at Northampton’s Derngate Theatre.
I’d been telling my three teenage girl companions that the show had indeed gone on, despite a case of the dreaded virus hitting the cast just before opening night, and that I wasn’t sure if we were getting the understudy cast. “Nope,” chirped up the couple in front of us. “We’re the understudies, and we did our last show yesterday!”
After 28 consecutive years of reviewing, only broken by Covid last December, I thought I knew what to expect: cheesy predictability, inappropriate gags and tired costumes, reused year on year as the ‘Big Panto Companies’ roll out the same stuff with different B-listers and reality stars on the bill. I’ve also been that exhausted parent chaperoning kids who were part of the junior chorus, who were (sorry-not-sorry) thankfully absent from this show due to coronavirus.
This year though, it all looked shiny and new (for a panto at least). Enter high above Stage Right, the glamorous Fairy Bowbells (Deborah Tracey) belting out ‘Richard Whittington’ to the tune of ‘Alexander Hamilton’, much to the delight of the three musical theatre-mad teenage girls with me. To be honest, I’d been unsure whether at 13 and 14 they’d be shoulder-shruggily, eye-rollingly too cool for panto, but they were on their feet, waving and joining in as much as the pre-schoolers.
It always felt like a massive leap of faith for families to pre-book panto tickets sometimes a year in advance, never really knowing which celebrity turns would be later rolled out. But this year is different – it’s a whole new company bringing the Derngate to life with the ‘He’s behind yous’ and ‘oh no he didn’ts’, along with a much needed nod to 2021 attitudes without the lazy shoehorning in of contemporary culture so overused by previous productions.
Paul Hendy and Emily Wood of Evolution Productions are new to collaborating with Derngate but they’ve done a sterling job to make this a traditional panto without the out-of-date, 70’s style innuendo which can put off a modern audience. Panto has to be so many things to so many different ages – the jokes have to be good enough to engage all ages and the slapstick so beloved of the under-tens also has to impress the grandparents too. And they had their work cut out with Dick Whittington, which, let’s face it, is the dullest of all the panto stories. Bloke goes to London, gets chucked out of London, goes back to London, somehow ends up on a ship, falls in love and eventually becomes Lord Mayor. Oh shush, that’s not a spoiler, that’s history.
The ‘names’ in this production were Ricky Champ (known as one of Eastenders’ most manipulative villains, Stuart) as the baddie King Rat. Champ does a knockout job as the leather clad rat boss, with some amusing lines delivered with the knowing glance of an actor comfortable with breaking the fourth wall.
Stepping boldly into the roll of the Dame, Bob Golding, known for his award-winning delivery of a convincing Eric Morecambe, actually channels a Dame Dolly more akin to a funnier Matt Lucas. His bikini scene is delivered with Madonna-esque self confidence that had my companions, and most of the audience, agog. When his random ‘audience-participant dad’ refused to play and swapped seats, he hilariously ad-libbed skilfully throughout (was he a plant or a stooge? Who cares!)
The glue that keeps the chaos together is Children’s TV favourite Phil Gallagher (Mister Maker to those of you with Cbeebies flashbacks) who endures not only the most pies-in-the-face I’ve ever seen by one human (with many, many to come through the show’s run) but also had to contend with a comically slippery stage and a failing head-mic that saw him have to use a handheld microphone for the second half.
The romantic young leads Alex Lodge (as Dick) and Anna Unwin (as Alice Fitzwarren) play it dutifully straight (well, as straight as a panto can manage) and there’s an impressively gymnastic, albeit wordless, turn by Jessie Adams as ‘Tommy (or is it Caroline) the Cat.’
The costumes are lavish, the sets are impressive and, for a jaded old panto stalwart, I found myself enjoying the chaos and vibrancy of the whole thing – ‘You’re actually laughing Mum!’ commented my daughter at the interval. Credit too, to the always-visible live band crammed into a circle box and given the task of keeping up with the mayhem below.
After the interminable pain and uncertainty of the last two years, Dick Whittington is a genuine boost for the soul – an uncomplicated, funny release into utter silliness for all ages. We’ve got more pandemic pain to come, so go and embrace the family fun of this show while you can. Dick Whittington runs at Royal and Derngate until January 2, 2022. Tickets and info from Royal and Derngate or call 01604 624811.