During the interval of Exeter Northcott Theatre’s Dick Whittington, I realise the last pantomime I saw starred David Hasselhoff. The one before: John Barrowman. The one before that: also John Barrowman. (I will not apologise for still loving Torchwood. Fight me.)
But before that, the star of all my pantomime experiences was my grandad, Fred Comber, who wrote, directed, and played the baddie in every show, every year, in his small Devon village of Holcombe. These were the best pantomimes of my life and played a large part in making me believe theatre could be for everyone. And there’s something about Exeter Northcott Theatre’s effort this year that brings that feeling back.
Dick Whittington is billed as “a traditional family pantomime”, and it’s the perfect antidote to years of mass-produced, pop-song-saturated, Christmas-bonuses-for-celebrities. Instead of buying the rights to ‘Let It Go’ and then shoe-horning it into the plot, or needing to explain why there are Daleks in Aladdin (a low point of one of the Barrowman bonanzas), there are only two things front and centre of Dick Whittington: the people making it, and the people watching it.
Central to this is local hero Steve Bennett, aka Dame Sarah Suet, and it’s clear from the outset why his reputation precedes him. Bennett pitches his dame somewhere in that comfortable place between character comedy and satire, and his rapport with the audience is second to none. He’s also a generous ensemble player and Sarah Suet is rarely a scene-stealer (except, of course, when scene-stealing is what lands the joke), and the romantic subplot with Gordon Cooper’s Captain Darling provides ample opportunity for those all-important innuendoes.
Emily Essery is a confident, charming principle boy, and plays Dick as a well-meaning country lad with a nice balance of naivety and cockiness as he pursues his ambition to find fame and fortune. Annabel Warwick is an excellent counter-point as Alice Fitzwarren, playing deftly with the tropes of spoiled rich daughter and girl-power wannabe, and finding a good deal of nuance and comedy in the role. Essery and Warwick are particularly strong when they’re together, side-stepping sappy and going for a will they/won’t they dynamic, showcased best in a rendition of ‘Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)’.
But my favourite character (thanks to Grandad) is always the baddie, and Jeffrey Harmer’s King Rat doesn’t disappoint. Deliciously wicked and a bigger diva than the dame, he gets the best song of the whole show and is absolutely brilliant with the young cast of woodland creatures and “ratlings”.
There are a few moments that don’t quite hit the mark. Jokes about keelhauling and waterboarding are verging on the dark side, and a classic baking scene sort of just… happens, without much build-up or excitement. The energy dips in places during the first act, although this definitely rights itself after the interval. And I’m still not sure, even though it’s framed in a much more meta way than usual, about the sudden appearance of Aladdin-esque orientalism in the second half.
But these instances are outweighed by some moments of sheer ingenuity. The tidal wave is unexpectedly brilliant, and the script itself hits some beats I’ve never seen in Dick Whittington before – it’s certainly no mean feat to make a story that’s retold dozens of time every year feel fresh and surprising. The starring role played by a thousand knitted cupcakes is a perfect climax, even if it’s then followed up by a bizarre moment in which Dick asks the audience, “What shall we do with King Rat?” and receives the slightly bemused, slightly sinister audience response, “…Kill him?” Festive!
All in all though, Dick Whittington is a joyful and welcome return by Exeter Northcott Theatre to unashamedly proper panto. And in the very best spirit of regional theatre, it’s genuinely intended for the home audience.
Dick Whittington is at Exeter Northcott Theatre until January 7th. For more details, click here.