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DICK WHITTINGTON & HIS CAT – Wilton’s Music Hall, London.

wiltons_0363Wilton’s is one of the oldest surviving music halls in London and it seems fitting that its first foray into pantomime should be written by and starring a man whose career has been heavily influenced by the venue’s original purpose.  Roy Hudd is one of a handful of UK entertainers who has a direct link with the ‘good old days’ of Music Hall and Variety, and therefore with many of the performers who made pantomime the way we recognise it today.  Consequently, there can be no better combination of star turn and venue than in this production of Dick Whittington.

The Music Hall itself has recently been beautifully refurbished and is the perfect location for a beautiful and ultra-traditional festive production. It seems appropriate that the subject for its first panto should be Dick Whittington: the true tale of a down-on-his-luck man who ends up becoming an iconic part of London’s heritage.  The story of Wilton’s Music Hall is very similar and if it continues to present productions of this quality then its future will be assured.

The shabby-chic auditorium is utilised beautifully throughout the production and Mark Hinton’s set only adds to the fairy tale feel of the place.  His false proscenium arch stretches beyond the edge of the balcony with a subtlety unexpected in pantomime, and his on stage work impresses as much with its ingenuity.  He provides all the spectacle you would expect from a much bigger show, but on a considerably smaller scale and nothing seems lacking.

Much the same could be said for the whole production.  Steve Geraghty (Musical Director) and Tom Boyce (Percussion) create the sound of a much bigger orchestra and rattle through everything from sea shanties to Meatloaf with alacrity; supporting rather than dominating proceedings.

Helen Jeckells’ choreography is equally as impressive in such a restricted space and adds considerable wonder to the production.  The ensemble of five dancers deliver Jeckells’ sympathetic routines with considerable energy and character.  Whilst Rhys Whiteside stands out for his sense of character and engagement with the entire production, the whole team are superlative and raise the bar for dancers on a pantomime stage.

The best professional pantos should feel like the audience are watching their friends in the local village hall and director Debbie Flitcroft has managed to assemble a cast that are capable of just that.  Gareth Davies’ Ronaldo Ratface is a panto baddy in the best sense: dastardly but easy to laugh at.  The audience love to hate him, but the performance is still palatable for younger audiences.  His nemesis The Spirit of the City is given a beautiful characterisation by Nicole Davis and it is impossible not to trust her immediately.  She is graceful, softly spoken and pure magic; she has the audience in the palm of her hands from her first entrance and never lets her winning smile falter for a second.

Davies and Davis are serious contenders for show stealing; but this production belongs to one person: Roy Hudd.  As the writer he has created a script that veers from farcical to tender.  It doesn’t wander too far from the traditional story, but does present some lovely surprises, such as Steven Hardcastle’s sassy and verbally impaired Tommy the Cat.  Hudd writes Alice Fitzwarren (Amelia Rose Morgan) as a strong and independent Principle Girl, whilst making sure she still serves the story appropriately and (probably to be expected) there’s a lot of political mickey taking, culminating in a ghost gag that sees Hudd surrounded by about ten Boris Johnsons.

However, it is the chance to see Hudd make his pantomime dame debut that is the real appeal in this production.  Throughout his career he has worked with some of the finest dame comedians and their influence runs throughout his performance. Playing Sarah the Cook, Hudd combines his comic and acting abilities to create a character both humane and outrageous.    His one liners are delivered with a twinkle in the eye and he pulls expressions that support the action rather than draw attention from it.

Hudd’s dame debut is the cherry on a very rich cake.  This production of Dick Whittington must be one of the most perfect pantomimes in the capital.  It stands out from the modern, more commercial, offerings of nearby theatres by wholeheartedly embracing all the traditions that made pantomime so popular and it is rewarded by a rapturous reception from its audience.

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Reviewed 15/12/2015

by Robert Pearce

1st – 31st December 2015
Wilton’s Music Hall, London, E1 8JB. 

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