Dick Whittington (Luke Latchman) is a small kid in a big city. With his polka dot bundle and winning smile he’s made it all the way to where the streets are paved with gold and black mould lurks behind every plumbing facility. Before arriving inside the M25, the hero of this year’s Lyric Hammersmith panto spent his days in charming Cardiff [leeks! Welsh cakes! Daffodils! St David’s Shopping Centre!] And he finds the adjustment to London life hard [aaaawww!]. Londoners are mean and the promised shiny floors are actually covered in unidentified rotten goo [boooo!].
About ten minutes into Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd’s new show, I realise this is the Christmas tale I’ve been waiting for. Because – ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls – I am a Dick!*
Or, at least, I relate to this one. Dick and I, we have a lot in common, because this too is my first Christmas** in the bright lights of the capital. Last year, I scraped together the shiny pennies needed to buy a Christmas pud by reviewing all the Christmas shows in the Land of Far Far Away (also known as ‘The West’). My festive odyssey [14 Christmas shows in 12 days: that’s more jingling bells and mulling wine than even the elves can take] included a trip to the Cardiff panto, along with ones in Bath, Bristol and Exeter (x2). And as it happens, the Welsh capital’s offering – featuring Welsh rugby legend, and irrepressibly nice human being, Gareth Thomas – was one of my firm favourites, not least because my view to the stage was partially blocked by two giant sexy rugby players with giant sexy rugby player necks and yes, I did watch what was happening on stage too, thank you very much.
Rumours reached me, however, that the London pantomimes were a cut-above their ‘regional’ counterparts. Whispered promises met my frosty ears of Stratford Easts, Hackney Empires and Lyric Hammersmiths, London venues serving up pantos with more dashing, more dancing, more prancing, more… vixening? More cometting? Never mind, off I trotted, eyes peeled for this moment of glitter-dusted magic.
Dick Whittington at the Lyric Hammersmith is, of course, still a panto. It has a dame, a fairy tale, a love story, sparkly costumes and lots of songs. There are sweets thrown to the audience, a sing-a-long bit, birthday announcements and lots of chances to shout things, which never stops being fun because everyone loves breaking rules in a theatre. It also has a few differences, notably that Christian and Lloyd’s show has a considerable amount more plot than most pantos. Dick’s stitch-up as a crook, brief exodus to Scotland/Under the Sea, eventually successful mayoral campaign and romance with Alice Fitzwarren (Hollie Edwin), are all acted out as part of a storyline the most Grinchy could describe as ‘slightly overlong’.
Because the selling point of a panto isn’t ever the plot, it’s the cast and characters. And in this category, the Lyric Hammersmith has some winning entrants. First up is Keziah Joseph as Tom Cat, Dick’s purrfectly groomed companion who’s evolved out of rat catching and onto vicious tweeting. Between napping-and-eating, napping-and-eating, Tom is the puuurrrrfect guide*** for naïve Dick.
Then there’s the cackling Queen Rat (Sarah-Louise Young) who takes up where Roald Dahl’s witches left off, prowling the stage and sniffing in disgust at the first whiff of children. Her royal rattiness is set off nicely by Bow Belles (Jodie Jacobs), a.k.a. ‘the true spirit of London’. Show me a sad face and I’ll show it Belle’s outfit (designed by Jean Chan) of a great big bow and a great big bell and, well, let’s watch that frown turn upside down. Carl Mullaney also makes for a very warm, and breakfast-loving, pantomime dame.
At points, the softly political humour is a bit pat-on-the-back cringe worthy, with most of the Brexit-related gags just sounding faintly smug rather than genuinely funny. But the overall ‘message’ (this is, it’s fair to say, a panto with a ‘message’) is enough to thaw Scrooge’s heart. Be nice to each other! Chimes bountiful Belle. Say sorry when you bash into each other, and don’t treat rush hour like a fight to the death. Be lovely to London and London will be lovely to you [big aaawwww!]
So it did it convince me to love London pantomimes? Can I now wear my Chris Krauss-inspired ‘I love Dick’ t-shirt with pride down the lit-up Oxford Street? Maybe. I mean, a panto is a panto, the same way a mince pie is a mince pie even when it’s bought at Waitrose. But the Lyric Hammersmith does embrace one Christmas theatrical tradition with particular glee: FAKE SNOW! LOTS OF IT!! FAKE SNOW THAT SMELLS OF FAIRY LIQUID AND IS REALLY PRETTY!! Ahh, fake snow, if you’re missing the real flakes falling on Exmoor, there’s always this to warm the heart and semi-shampoo the hair.
* [Insert great void of awkward silence as I wait for the audience to shout ‘OH NO YOU’RE NOT!’]
** Ignoring university days
*** I’m really sorry. Once was bad enough.
Dick Whittington is on at the Lyric Hammersmith until 6th January. More info here.