PREPARE TO BE swept away by the political ambitions of a humble orange-dungareed young man with a man ban, a blanket stick and a cheeky yellow Tom Cat, in the National Theatre’s pantomime Dick Whittington, which you can see, for the next couple of days, for free online.
It’s not only this fresh-faced duo, (Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings and Cleve September) that will keep you on the edge of your seat, laughing uproariously, however. Something completely magical happens, in this whirligig in-the-round production at the Olivier Theatre in London. The piece is not only a sum of the traditional pantomime ingredients spilled and tossed onto the true 17th century story of a poor boy and his cat, in the name of kindness, human decency and mayoral office. It’s also the National Theatre’s annual Christmas pantomime. Having been closed just four days after it opened, due to the rise of the second wave of the pandemic in the UK, the production is shot through with COVID-19 references and protocol. Rather than hurt the robust fabric of this curious tale, however, this element threads it with a poignancy that is deeply moving.
It’s a work with a rollicking heft and a sense of narrative momentum that will keep you rivetted and laughing, even if you are watching it from your bed, alone. Comprising most of the ingredients of the traditional panto – from the dame and the bad guy to the hero and his love interest, the rude nuances and the fart jokes, not to mention the political jibes and the special wow moments that are contained by lights, costumes and props, it’s a production that simply has everything.
While occasionally, you may feel that there are too many shots from a distance, of the circular stage segmented with light, the story lines are clear, and the casting and performance of this work, utterly impeccable. The main characters, including Dame Sarah Fitzwarren and her Easy Over Café (Dickie Beau) who has the rudest lines and freakiest frocks; the deliciously bad Rat Queen Felicity (Amy Booth-Steel) who has a voice that ramps up the artistic value of the work and the mystical and gorgeous Bow Belles (Melanie La Barrie) are flawless. But of course, you may cry. You would not expect anything less of the main protagonists.
The secret joys in this work come of the ensemble cast who handle everything from the idiosyncrasies of the text to the trills of a trumpet, with the kind of pizzazz that will give you goosebumps. Tinovimbanashe Sibanda, her puce instrument and lithe choreography offer a vignette that has the potency to stand alone. You could just watch her with these notes of fantastic filigree, and your joy for this show would be complete.
And then, there are the costumes. And the special effects. There are some jelly fish which will make even the most curmudgeonly grinch shriek with delight, as the young Whittington takes to the sea with his friend the overwhelmingly yellow cat. The voice of Georgina Onuorah as Alice reaches young Dick from the depths of the ocean as it will reverberate through your own sense of space. Slick with polish, and shimmering with astuteness, it’s a madcap tapestry woven with baked beans that make you break noisy wind, many a pigeon in different career paths, bearing carroty beaks and family resemblances, and sweet audience interaction.
Featuring a coronavirus hug through plastic and many lyrics that deal cleverly with the pandemic, even though the cast are not masked, they each are essentially performing alone, nary does one performer touch another, or contravene social distances. In short, this is a Christmas gift from the National Theatre itself, from their illustrious context to your humble home, which will give a sprinkle of joy and a dollop of spice to the last days of a year which has been horrendous. Don’t miss it.
- Dick Whittington was originally written by Thomas Heywood in the mid 17th century and is reworked for pantomime by Jude Christian and Cariad Lloyd. Directed by Ned Bennett for the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre complex in London, it is performed by Dickie Beau, Amy Booth-Steel, Laura Checkley, Khalid Daley, Beth Hinton-Lever, Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings, Travis Kerry, Melanie La Barrie, Jaye Marshall, Jamie-Rose Monk, Ken Nguyen, Georgina Onuorah, Cleve September, Tinovimbanashe Sibanda, Leah St Luce, Rhys Taylor and Christopher Tendai. Produced and presented by the National Theatre Live, it features creative input by Jessica Hung Han Yun (lighting), Paul Arditti (sound), DJ Walde (composer, arranger and music production), Danielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe (choreography) and Georgia Lowe (set and costumes). It broadcasts for free until 27 December on the National Theatre’s youtube channel.